Part of being a critic is accepting that my opinion may often defy conventional wisdom. What I enjoy may radically differ from the hundreds of millions of other human beings who inhabit this planet. I sit at my computer, slack-jawed and dumbfounded, that the seventh “Fast and the Furious” movie is now the third most popular film in the history of cinema. I fight every urge to punch myself in the brain every time “Transformers” crosses the one-billion-dollar mark. Bad writers struggle with the idea that their opinions may be the voices of dissent. Good writers are smart enough to know that dissent makes far better reviews.
I find myself at odds with Pixar—the massively successful producer of ridiculously well-reviewed family movies, owned by a very successful company you may have heard of called “Disney.” I used to enjoy Pixar movies. I was in college, looking for an excuse not to study, and (like many film enthusiasts) the idea of a computer-generated animated film had stoked my interest. A friend wandered into the theater green room and asked, “You heard anything about this new Tom Hanks animated movie?” Twenty minutes later we were at an almost empty theater seeing a midday show, marveling at what was very clearly a defining moment in cinema and the future of animation.
“Toy Story” was an amazing experience. It was an instant classic, and featured great characters, amazing visuals (for the time) and a lot of heart. Disney’s animated output had been waning. The 1980s was difficult for the “House of the Mouse,” as their animated features were starting to feel antiquated. They made a massive comeback in the ‘90s with hits like “The Lion King,” “The Little Mermaid” and “Beauty and the Beast.” After hitting a new creative apex, Disney once again fell into a slump. Pixar was clearly the future, and Disney was smart enough to put a ring on it. Twenty years later, I find myself not only bored with Pixar movies but frustrated with them.
“Inside Out” is a not-so-original idea about personifying the voices in our heads; that within all of us there is Joy (Amy Poehler), Sadness (Phyllis Smith), Disgust (Mindy Kaling), Fear (Bill Hader), and Anger (Lewis Black). These divergent personality types help shape lives and memories. The central character is a young girl named Riley. She’s a happy-go-lucky 11-year-old, until she’s forced to leave her old life behind when her father relocates for a business venture. Since this is Pixar, they have to move to San Francisco—because that’s where people with first-world problems congregate.
Things don’t go too well for Riley who has a hard time adjusting to her new surroundings. San Francisco isn’t quite the wonderful, wintery paradise of Minnesota. Inside her head, the voices struggle with pointing Riley in the right direction. A problem with Riley’s core memories (the most important ones) causes Joy and Sadness to become lost, because this is a Pixar movie, and it’s contractually mandated that something adorable needs to be lost and make its way back home. Also, because it’s Pixar, there’s a valuable life lesson to be learned: Life isn’t about just being happy all the time. Our lives and memories are the culmination of happiness, sadness and a variety of other emotions that weave together a complex tapestry.
When I watch Pixar movies, I feel like William Shatner in a classic “Saturday Night Live” sketch where he berates a bunch of giant “Star Trek” nerds for being such die-hard fans well after puberty. That’s how I feel about Pixar movies. I totally understand the love these movies get from kids—they’re aesthetically beautiful and feature all sorts of zany characters—but when I hear middle-aged men declare the brilliance of a Pixar movie, I want to scream, “You’re grown men! Get a life!”
I didn’t just dislike “Inside Out,” I wanted great harm to befall the characters. I found their one-dimensional personality types grating. I found Joy’s exuberance cloying, and I kept wishing someone would just drop an anvil on Sadness. I kept rooting for the film to take a dark turn and have doctors lobotomize Riley to silence the voices in her head.
There’s just no joy left in Pixar. The formula is so tired that I can barely muster the energy to care. “Inside Out” is a film I’m sure a lot of people will enjoy, but the technical proficiency and artistic beauty of these movies will never be enough to mask the redundant lost-and-found story.