Over the last 25 years or so Pixar has established itself as a master of animated films even superseding its parent company, Disney, as the perceived leader of animation in the eyes of many. Part of this is due to the studio’s penchant for smart and emotionally driven storytelling which has become a signature aspect of the studio’s big screen features. As a result, Pixar has produced some of the most tear-jerking moments in cinema, tugging at our heartstrings through a mix of sincere storytelling and deep themes that force viewers young and old to reflect on life and the many experiences that give it meaning. Few studios have provided as much depth and subtext as Pixar which often refusing to “dumb down” the experience choosing instead to respect the emotional maturity of its viewers. As the studio prepares to roll out the fourth entry in the “Toy Story” franchise, the series that started it all, I couldn’t help but look back at all the times this studio managed to make me happy, and ugly cry and seeing as I was just six years old when “Toy Story” first came out I’ve literally grown up, physically and emotionally, learning from the many stories Pixar has been able to churn out. So, get those tissues ready and prepare for the feels, these are my picks for the Top 10 Tear-Jerking Moments in Pixar Movies.
For this list, I looked at all 20 theatrical films that Pixar has released prior to “Toy Story 4”. For each film I chose one moment that touched me personally as a viewer to consider and cut that list in half to produce this countdown. With that said I only allowed one moment from each Pixar movie because I wanted to make sure I covered the studio’s filmography properly and almost every movie they released has had a major emotional moment worth mentioning.
A lot of my own personal opinion was built into this list as I considered how these moments affected me as a viewer but I also considered the lasting legacy of these moments in the eyes of the larger public and how well these moments capture the core themes of their respective films.
What Pixar moment brought tears to your eyes? Let me know in the comments below, enjoy the list and look for my review of “Toy Story 4” coming soon.
10. The Glory of Radiator Springs, “Cars”
While the “Cars” movies have never been Pixar’s best, the original film holds a special place in my heart. In 2006 I was just getting ready to head into my senior year of high school. After seeing “Cars” I fell in love with the soundtrack and the song “Our Town” specifically. Written by Randy Newman and performed by James Taylor the song speaks to the nostalgia of a small town. When combined with Sally’s recollection of the glory of Radiator Springs it becomes even more touching. The whole scene is meant to teach both Lightning McQueen and the audience a lesson about taking a moment to slow down and enjoy what’s around you because you may not know what you’re missing. Over ten years later the warning about bypassing the beauty of life to save a few seconds towards our goals is even more relevant than ever before. Seeing Radiator Springs in its prime and watching as the world flies by such a tight-knit community is absolutely heartbreaking and it creates possibly the most beautiful moment that encompasses the film’s central message using nostalgia and a beautiful melody to drive it all home…no pun intended.
9. Dory Pleas for Marlin Not to Leave, “Finding Nemo”
“Finding Nemo” has plenty of emotional moments I could have picked for this list, from its dark and depressing opening to Nemo reuniting with Marlin, but the moment that has stuck with me more than any over the years is when we find Marlin at his lowest point. Marlin went through so much to find his son, and at this point he truly feels he has lost Nemo forever leading him to force Dory out of his life as well. Dory doesn’t want to be left alone however, telling Marlin that being around him has helped improve her memory and that for the first time in a long time she feels at home and can remember things. Ellen DeGeneres provides a spectacularly sincere yet subtle performance here that drives home Dory’s emotional state and her fear and frustration at the thought of being abandoned. It’s an important character moment for both Marlin as Dory as well with Dory coming to realize how much she has grown since their adventure began and Marlin finally forced to face his fears of loss head on which, which tragic in the moment, eventually helps him find closure and trust Nemo a bit more in the finale.
8. WALL-E Remembers, “WALL-E”
One of Pixar’s most beloved films, “WALL-E” is filled with tender and fun moments that bring both sad and happy tears. The fact that Pixar made us feel so strongly for a pair of robots is a testament to their storytelling abilities. In the final act, WALL-E is heavily damaged after he and EVE try to stop AUTO. Back on planet Earth EVE tries to repair WALL-E and while he successfully reactivates it appears his personality and memories have been reset, reverting him to the literal robot he was made to be. While the entire movie does a great job of humanizing these machines, this one scene encapsulates the emotional depth of these characters more than any other in the film as EVE is distraught over the thought of losing her love interest and friend. It all works out however bringing viewers from sad tears to happy tears as EVE “kisses” WALL-E giving him a shock that reboots his memory. For a moment it looked like Pixar would relinquish these two lovebirds of their happy ending, but in the end they are allowed to be together proving just how human these machines have become.
7. Dory Finds Her Parents, “Finding Dory”
This was the moment the entire film built up towards and it didn’t disappoint. The cool thing about “Finding Dory” is that its title has a double meaning. On the one hand, it means Dory will “find herself” and learn about who she is. On the other, it also references her parents who are trying to find their little girl. At this moment those two concepts intersect as Dory finally reunites with her mother and father who have laid seashells to help her find her way, something they used to do when she was younger to help her with her memory loss. It might be a predictable moment since we pretty much knew that the movie couldn’t end without Dory finding her family, but the fact that it still resonates with viewers and creates a tear-jerking moment only serves as further evidence of Pixar’s mastery of emotional storytelling. This moment could have been so over or under done, but Pixar and the filmmakers found the perfect middle point to create a heartwarming reunion 13 years in the making.
6. Thanks for the Adventure, “Up”
I know a lot of you probably expected “Up’s” famous and incredibly well-done opening sequence on this list, but I think that montage often overshadows what for me is truly the most touching moment in the movie. In the third act, Carl is left alone having saved his home instead of the bird Kevin from Muntz and driven Russell away. Carl succeeds in bringing his home to Paradise Falls, a dream he and his late wife Ellie had but were never able to accomplish. Carl finally sits in his chair to be at peace before opening a memory book Ellie left behind. Carl is shocked to find that Ellie had filled the pages with photos of their life together causing Carl to realize that while he and Ellie weren’t able to do everything they planned she still loved being with him and their life was still full of memories and adventures. The icing on the cake is Ellie’s final message to Carl reminding him that new adventures await which inspires Carl to do the right thing. Ellie’s final message is a reminder to Carl and to the audience that no matter what roadblocks get in the way there’s always room for new adventures even if they’re not the adventures you planned on. I still get goosebumps and feel teary-eyed every time I see this scene play out.
5. Tears of Joy and Bingbong’s Sacrifice, “Inside Out”
“Inside Out” is a fascinating Pixar film that follows emotions inside the mind of young Riley as she moves to San Francisco. Joy is her dominant emotion and does everything she can to keep Sadness from interrupting Riley’s state of mind. The plot sees Joy and Sadness lost in Riley’s head and at one point Joy finds herself trapped in the Memory Dump with Riley’s imaginary friend Bingbong. This leads to actually two different interconnected moments. First Joy begins to lose hope and sheds her own tears when she realizes that Sadness is an essential part of Riley’s personality to evoke and seek empathy during Riley’s hardships. This allows Joy to accept that while happiness is good, life isn’t all about the smiles, it’s also about the challenges too. This alone is a tear-jerking meta moment for Joy but what comes next really gets the waterworks going. To escape the Memory Dump Bingbong sacrifices himself to allow Joy to use a rocket-powered wagon to fly out. Bingbong disappears and is forgotten, but not before asking Joy to take Riley to the moon for him. Together these moments make one fantastic scene that is sure to bring a tear either at the realization that feeling sad is perfectly normal or for its ability to draw memories of our own childhoods and imaginary friends long forgotten.
4. Goodbye Boo, “Monsters, Inc.”
“Monsters, Inc.” is, for the most part, more comedy than emotionally driven drama but it does have its share of memorable scenes meant to tug at the heartstrings. Sully unintentionally scaring Boo immediately comes to mind. However, there’s no doubt the film’s most emotional moment is the goodbye at the end. After spending most of the movie bonding with the human girl Boo, Sully must return her to the human world knowing that by Monsters, Inc. policy Boo’s door will be shredded preventing Sully from returning to visit. Due to her young age, it’s clear that Boo has a hard time grasping the gravity of the situation while Sully is torn up that he has to say goodbye. When he finally leaves, Boo opens the closet door expecting to see Sully but instead sees only her closet finally realizing he is gone. It’s an absolutely heart-wrenching goodbye moment that may not necessarily fit into the overarching themes of “Monsters, Inc.” but it does serve as a reminder of the pain of a farewell all the same. Thankfully after the tears, we are giving an adorable moment in the final seconds where Mike reveals he has rebuilt Boo’s door and Sully opens it to hear Boo’s adorable voice call him Kitty one more time.
3. Jessie’s Story, “Toy Story 2”
Remember at the beginning when I talked about “Our Town” and how perfectly it meshed with the most tear-jerking moment of “Cars”? Well “Toy Story 2” did it years earlier with a tune called “When She Loved Me” performed by Sarah McLachlan. In no doubt the film’s most powerful scene cowgirl Jessie’s story is revealed as the song helps narrate her recollection of being loved by a girl named Emily before being abandoned. This tragic turn of events directly contributed to the anxiety we see her suffer throughout the film as well as her hesitation to trust another child or understand Woody’s dedication to Andy. The song combined with the depressing story have made this one of the most iconic moments in all of Pixar and it plays right into the themes of the “Toy Story” series as a whole concerning the bond between a child and their toy and the impact of abandonment and mistreatment on the psyche. Also, this is the first time in the franchise that the idea of kids growing out of their toys and moving on was truly addressed. Jessie’s story sets up the franchise to explore this theme even further in the third film while also making every child and child at heart feel bad for ever abandoning their childhood playthings.
2. “Remember Me”, “Coco”
Again, we have a scene where a song impacts the emotional depth, but this one is particularly special because it’s not just an overlaid track. It’s an actual part of the story. “Coco” is a fantastic 2017 Oscar-winning film that explores the concepts of death and legacy. It follows young Miguel who defies his family’s hate for music and ends up finding himself in the Land of the Dead seeking to connect with the man he THINKS is his great-great-grandfather, the legendary musician Ernesto de la Cruz. Miguel meets a man named Héctor along the way and discovers that Héctor is really his great-great-grandfather and wrote the popular song “Remember Me” for his daughter Coco, but it was stolen and made famous by Ernesto. As the film draws to a close Héctor begins to fade as Coco starts to forget her father, but Miguel arrives in time to defy his family once again and play “Remember Me” to remind Coco of the love her father gave her. I remember vividly crying in the theater as Coco remembered her father and Miguel had a chance to finally embrace the art he loved so much. It’s a powerful moment that fully embraces the themes of the film and speaks to the beauty that both memories and music bring to our lives and the importance of leaving a legacy behind not for the world, but for the ones we love to remember us by.
1. Andy Gives Away His Toys, “Toy Story 3”
Who doesn’t get a little choked up watching this moment even nine years later? While the “Toy Story” franchise is continuing this weekend, in 2010 we all prepared ourselves for a powerful goodbye to end all goodbyes as we knew Andy would inevitably bid farewell to Woody and the gang by the end of the film. Even seeing it coming though I doubt many of us were truly prepared for it. In the movie’s final moments Andy donates his toys to young Bonnie making her promise to take care of them as he reminisces on the impact they had on his life, especially Woody. Seeing Andy play with his toys one last time is the one moment in all of Pixar that brings both happy and sad tears simultaneously. Even just typing about it gives me goosebumps. We all have to say goodbye at some point in our lives, whether it’s to our toys, our childhoods, or even people we love, and while it may be difficult it’s important to remember how those things helped shape who we are. This final passing of the torch from Andy to Bonnie allows Andy to revisit his childhood one last time while allowing the toys to do what they were made to do, bring joy to a loving child. It is undoubtedly Pixar’s best moment as well as the most emotional scene in the studio’s vast filmography.