Pixar has had a rocky few years, especially with some of the recent efforts from Disney Animation, Laika and DreamWorks providing hefty competition. I never really got into the idea of Pixar’s days being over like some, but I think it is without doubt that their recent efforts do not quite live up to the expectations set by their older work. So, obviously it isn’t a surprise that Pixar’s latest effort, Inside Out, has gained a lot of attention and praise as a return to form for the company. Another reason to get excited is because the film is that the co-writer/co-director is Pete Docter, known for Monsters Inc. and Up, and he works alongside his co-director, Ronnie del Carmen, who helped develop the story.
Inside Out is about young girl named Riley (Kaitlyn Dias), or rather the emotions that she has inside her head that take part in her day-to-day decision making. There is Joy (Amy Poehler), Fear (Bill Hader), Anger (Lewis Black), Disgust (Mindy Kaling) and Sadness (Phyllis Smith). They make sure everything runs smoothly and Riley lives a fun and happy life, but when something goes wrong causing Sadness and Joy to get sucked out of the main control room of Riley’s mind to her long-term memory, they must work together to get back to the control room before their absence begins to negatively affect Riley.
The interesting thing about Pixar is that, structurally speaking, Inside Out does very little differently. It’s a story about a world within our world where two opposing characters are forced to work together to solve a conflict. Not saying that’s a bad thing at all, a lot of fiction can be broken down to very basic elements that could go all the way back to caveman drawings. If anything, I’m impressed with how Pixar has managed to take a formula and apply it in so many ways without us getting the feeling that their simply giving us the same product in a different package. Even with Inside Out, the concept of a being or a personified emotion living in someone’s head is a classic image that has been used in fiction for years. However, with all that said, I am really happy to report that Inside Out is the real deal. I don’t know how I would necessarily rank Inside Out in Pixar’s filmography, but, even if you don’t consider it their best film overall (and it is up there by the way), I think it is by far their most admirable achievement since the original Toy Story (and I only give Toy Story the edge because it was their first).
I’ll try to be vague in terms of discussing plot details because I think this is a film worth going in completely fresh. Though, frankly I don’t think this is a film where the “plot” really matters as the film is basically a well-crafted example of metaphorical storytelling. It’s a story that is ultimately about the human experience, specifically growing up and learning how to balance our emotions. It’s about understanding ourselves more and extending that empathy to others. By going on the journey with Joy and Sadness, the audience is given the chance to reflect on themselves. It’s an surprisingly thought provoking film, not so much in terms of big ideas, concepts or theories, but in examining how we process our experiences through memory, creating ideas, developing personality, how external forces cause emotional reactions, etc. To call the film intimate and introspective would be a huge understatement. I can see some criticizing the fact that Riley isn’t that interesting of a character, but I feel that misses the point. Riley is meant to be a relatively normal, average girl and giving her some crazy characteristics would detract from the universality of the themes. It is more an exercise in empathy than a character study. I do think the film does allow for some deeper, subtextual readings with how the characters interact in certain scenes that could possibly allude to depression and other forms of anxiety disorders. It’s subtle, but broad enough to let people have their own interpretation.
One element that I loved about the film is that there is no traditional villain. The villain is a thing that I feel is so often unnecessarily forced into most American family films. Pete Docter and his co-writers, Josh Cooley and Meg LeFauve, did a phenomenal job in being able to create natural and riveting drama with tension and suspense without needlessly adding a villain. It’s honestly comparable to the works of Hayao Miyazaki, moreso than any other Pixar film. This isn’t the kind of movie where you wonder whether the protagonist will die or if the world will explode, it all boils down to the happiness and well-being of one girl who is at a hard stage in her life. Every laugh and every tear is given such incredible weight, adding a huge (if not surprising) emotional punch. Seeing Riley break down when things go wrong is about as devastating as you think.
Another impressive element is how well realized the inner-workings of the mind are. It’s fairly simplistic, but practically every major aspect of psychology, critical thinking and brain function is represented in some way. There is so much detail packed into the film and everything serves a purpose. Production designer, Ralph Eggleston, and the art department have done some incredible work in bringing Riley’s mind to life in a way that’s believable, and perfect in serving the overall metaphor. You also get to meet some colorful characters along Joy and Sadness’ journey as well. One of which is a character named Bing Bong, whose role I won’t spoil, played brilliantly by Richard Kind.
Speaking of which, the casting in the film is pitch perfect. Everyone playing the emotions does incredible work, Amy Poehler in particular provides a surprisingly nuanced performance as Joy, and Lewis Black as Anger is nothing short of awesome. Diane Lane and Kyle MacLachlan as Riley’s mother and father don’t have a whole lot to do, but they still do good work when it counts. The cast is also great when it came to the comedy in the film. Yes, despite the rather heavy themes, the film still has a wicked sense of humor. Honestly, I feel like a vast majority of the comic moments were meant for adults, usually one-liners or some background/sight gags. The only jokes that felt kind of flat to me were the more slap-sticky ones that were obviously there for the kids, but it never detracted from the experience. It’s really a great balance of humor, drama and emotion.
I felt like I was prepared for what Inside Out had in store for me, I went in pretty confident that I knew how things will turn and what the film will do to toy with my emotions, but it shows that a great film will be able to power through that. I found myself crying at least three times; I couldn’t even imagine how I would’ve handled it as a child. I love what Pete Docter and his team, the cast and crew were able to accomplish with this film. I will say though this is a film that I think speaks more to adults than to kids, but it’s still great for the kids because the message is so good. It takes a lot of guts to go out and say that it is perfectly OK to feel sad, and sometimes you need to for your own good. It’s brilliant because that message allows a deeper understanding of the pain that others can go through, and any film that is able to promote that level of empathy and understanding for people while also being funny, exciting, beautiful, deep, complex, and entertaining for kids and adults, is a masterpiece in my book.
Side Note: For the first time ever, Pixar will be releasing two films this year. There is Inside Out and later this year on Thanksgiving, we will get The Good Dinosaur. It’s directed by Peter Sohn and written by Enrico Casarosa and Bob Peterson and it is an adventure film, following an Apatosaurus and its human friend, which takes place on an alternate universe where the asteroid meant to kill the dinosaurs missed. I’ve been hearing a lot about the development of this film since around 2011. There have been delays, rewrites, talks of the project being “completely reimagined,” and even the entire voice cast aside from Frances McDormand being changed. I’m not too terribly worried since you can find stuff like this for a lot of animated films; this particular film just had the luck of doing so during the internet age where everyone is able to watch the production closely. Hopefully it will work out fine, and maybe be good enough to justify the existence of Finding Dory next year.