Pixar is sexist. Pixar is racist. Pixar is unoriginal, creatively bankrupt and as dead as Walt Disney's frozen head.
If you've read anything about Hollywood over the past five years, none of these accusations should sound new. Each critique has been perfectly timed to coincide with a new Pixar release, as if someone high in the cultural hive mind decided that the animation studio should face a barrage of stock transgressions year after year, film after film, until everyone was comfortable with the idea of burying the company in a WALL-E-esque mound of postapocalyptic trash.
The detractors, and there are many, have a point: Pixar's golden age, during which it produced such next-level cinema as Toy Story, Finding Nemo and The Incredibles, was more than a decade ago. The studio has undoubtedly seen better days – but so has the entire animation industry. Sub-par sequels, merchandising opportunities disguised as movies and 90-minute cinematic commercials for inevitable TV spinoffs: This is the reality of today's children's entertainment landscape, and Pixar has simply fallen into the same trap as everyone else. But there is hope.
This Friday marks the release of Inside Out, a thrilling, original story that is more concerned with genuine human emotion than licensing possibilities. Not only is it the best film of the year thus far, it's the best film Pixar has ever made. If the movie performs as well as analysts are predicting – and the buzz is deafening – it will be the comeback the studio, and by extension the entire industry, so desperately needs.
How, though, did Pixar get to the point where it could be so easily dismissed? Thank Larry the Cable Guy. In 2006, Pixar unleashed Cars, a comedy about anthropomorphic automobiles and the (strangely human-less) world they raced across. The film's hackneyed plot found a city slicker (voiced by Owen Wilson) learning to love a convoy of revved-up country bumpkins (including Mr. Cable Guy). It was mostly an excuse to exploit the Hot Wheels market, and had all the charm of a half-empty can of diesel.
One misstep can't sink an entire studio, but it was enough to unsettle the waters. Ever since 1995's Toy Story, the studio's first feature, anyone working outside the company's vaunted Emeryville, Calif., campus was forced to watch helplessly as Pixar gobbled up Oscars, Grammys, Golden Globes and billions of dollars. What was once a humble division of Lucasfilm had turned into a Disney-backed behemoth. It had the Apple-hip imprimatur of Steve Jobs and a filmography that was too good to be true. Pixar's name was gold – and it needed to be taken down a peg, or three.
It didn't take long after the fiasco of Cars (a perceived fiasco, not a financial one; it still earned $461-million) for critics, and the cultural conversation, to start second-guessing Pixar's every move: the naked elitism of Ratatouille (guilty), the fat-shaming of WALL-E (well, sorta, maybe), the racial stereotypes of Up (um?) and the cheap nostalgia of Toy Story 3 (too far, guys – does no one in this world have a heart?). These were small knocks – all three films still topped best-of lists, and box-office receipts – but the nitpicking was something new for the studio that could do no wrong. Then came Pixar's dark age.
From 2010 to 2013, the studio endured an unrelenting tide of bad ideas. Somehow, the studio's mythologized "brain trust" – an internal checks-and-balances system where employees "with a deep understanding of storytelling" dissect and finesse a film over and over again – let Brave, Monsters University and Cars 2 (!) slip through. Each was a third-rate offering, more suited to the lower-tier DisneyToon Studios (responsible for the forgettable Cars spinoffs Planes and Planes: Fire & Rescue).
It was a terrible rut – but it was the exact same rut the rest of the industry was suffering through. Critics of Pixar like to forget that the past five years have not exactly delivered an animation renaissance from its competitors, with screens choked by disposable offerings that only existed to feed the appetite of a franchise: two Kung Fu Pandas, three Madagascars, two Despicable Me entries (three if you count the coming spinoff Minions), and approximately 27 Ice Ages (okay, five).
Even when a unique work comes along such as Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs (the most Pixar-esque film that Pixar never made), it gets ground up in Hollywood's inevitable desire for sequels. (As for Frozen, it isn't the exception that proves the rule – its release was an afterthought to Disney, whose marketing campaign concealed its musical and feminist elements, precisely the qualities that made it a phenomenon.)
The animation world's descent into sequels and spinoffs isn't unique to the genre, of course. The rest of the film industry is in the grips of a brand-extension obsession that's just as large, if not more so. Witness the duelling superhero universes plotted out by Marvel/Disney and DC/Warner Bros. for the next decade.
Yet just because the rest of Hollywood is condemning itself to an endlessly looping future doesn't mean Pixar's fate is sealed, too. Inside Out is a definitive move back to the company's inventive roots, as is this fall's The Good Dinosaur. The latter is evidently so important to Pixar's future that it's undergone one of the most intensive "brain trust" refinements in the company's history, with the entire voice cast being replaced for one seemingly more true to the story's needs.
Yes, the presence of Toy Story 4 and Finding Dory on Pixar's upcoming slate is troubling, but that's mitigated by a possible musical centred on Dia de Los Muertos (Day of the Dead) and, again, the fact that Inside Out exists at all.
The focus of the new film, from Up director Pete Docter, is not on a toy-shelf-ready cuddly monster or talking race car, but the fragile emotions of an 11-year-old girl. It is inventive, touching and artistically honest – it proves that big-screen animation can be exciting again. In other words, it's pure Pixar. To infinity and beyond.