Disney Pixar has been in a bit of a slump lately. Since 2010, the studio once so well known for their original, creative storytelling has gotten a pretty severe case of sequel fever, churning out one after another (they also made the underperforming and underrated Brave during this time, but that’s a discussion for another article.) Some of them were great (Toy Story 3) and some of them were really, really not (Cars 2), but all the rest were somewhere in the middle. Then in 2014 Pixar didn’t release a film, the first time this has happened since 2005.
This got many people, myself included, wondering if Pixar’s reign as the kings of animation had finally come to an end; especially with the other Disney cartoon shop (Walt Disney Animation Studios) churning out some huge successes in Pixar’s absence. Last year’s Big Hero 6 is amazing. Please take the time to check it out if you haven’t yet. They also did a little known movie called Frozen. Maybe you’ve heard of it?
All this to say that there was a lot of expectations on the back of Pixar’s newest venture, Inside Out by director Pete Docter (Up, Monsters, Inc.). I’m happy to report that not only were these expectations happily met, but Pixar is back in a big way (if they ever truly left at all.) Inside Out is not only one of the best films of the year (it’s a lock for the Best Animation Academy Award), but in this critic’s humble opinion, it’s the best movie Pixar has ever made.
The film tells the story of 11 year old Riley as her parents move her from her comfortable life in the upper midwest to urban San Francisco. The majority of the story takes place insides Riley’s head, as the physical embodyment of five emotions work together to navigate the young girl through the turbulent changes she’s experiencing. They’re led by Joy (Amy Poehler) who constantly attempts to keep everything inside Riley happy and prides herself on the fact that Riley’s “core memories”, those that define her 5 major personality traits (Family, Honesty, Hockey, Friends, Goofiness), are all happy, wonderful memories. Joy is joined by Fear (Bill Hader), Disgust (Mindy Kaling), and Anger (Lewis Black) who serve the important role of keeping Riley alive and functioning. And lastly there’s Sadness (Phyllis Smith), the second emotion to appear inside Riley after Joy and the one whose role is understood the least.
In fact, Joy sees Sadness as a nuisance and constantly attempts to remove her completely from the equation, deciding for the group that Riley is better off constantly being happy. But when Sadness “interferes” with Riley’s central controls, her core memories are accidentally lost. Joy and Sadness must go deep inside Riley’s mind to retrieve the memories and return them to central command before her personality is irrevocably damaged.
There’s a whole lot going on here and in true Pixar form it’s simultaneously complex and easily digestible by children. The movie is trying to tackle powerful themes. The nature and importance of our emotions and how they define our memories. The interplay between sadness and happiness in our lives. How our personalities are defined and molded and how they change as we experience new things and reshape our past. This is deep stuff, but it’s told at a level that allows people of all ages to digest. Pixar really likes to straddle the line between narrative that works for children and ones that work for adults, and they’ve nailed it with Inside Out.
It’s also incredibly original, refreshing and beautiful. As Joy and Sadness wander through the deep recesses of Riley’s mind we get to see wonderfully clever representations of the workings of the human mind. Imagination, abstract thought, why you forget memories, and the reasons why random songs always seem stuck in your head; Pixar has a clever way of representing all of this. As I journeyed through film I was constantly surprised by what clever thing they had come up with next. Some of the best moments in the film are when you find yourself wondering “how did they come up with that?” The film is such a fun ride.
And a sad one. Inside Out will make you laugh, then cry, and then do some weird halfway laugh/cry thing that I don’t wanna talk about. Pixar is known for it’s gut wrenching, emotional scenes (the ending of Toy Story 3; the first ten minutes of Up) and Inside Out is no different. What is different though, is this time around the film seems to be self-referencing. If you ask anyone at Pixar why they always make movies with these heartbreaking moments, they’ll most likely tell you that these moments are necessary to inform the rest of the story and truly define these characters. After all, how can your characters experience victory if they haven’t ever tasted defeat? How do we truly know what happiness is, if we’ve never felt sadness? In this way, Inside Out is meta commentary on the Pixar storytelling method itself.
Of course, Pixar isn’t successful just because of their storytelling chops. The studio has made their mark on the industry by constantly pushing the envelope in computer animation. With Inside Out, they’ve once again managed to do something special. Not only are they bringing to life the inner workings of our mind, but they took it upon themselves to animate emotions and in doing so, challenged the hell out of themselves. Joy and her teammates are constantly glowing and have no clearly defined sharp ending lines, with their bodies seemingly slowly dissipating into the world around them. I cannot imagine how difficult this was to animate and light properly, but the result is an otherworldly quality to these characters that really sells their embodiment of our emotions.
The world itself is beautifully put together and shot as well. One of the most interesting things to look at in animated movies is where they decide to put the “camera” in each shot, as they’re not limited by the real world. The cinematography of the film matches the imagination of its creators: curious to soak in every inch of the world around it.
Inside Out is a complex, wonderful film that sits with you for days. It’s been a week now since I’ve seen it and I still find myself considering the intricacies of what the film is trying to say. It’s one of the rare movies that works for kids and adults, both on the same and different levels. Your children might not understand all the nuance of what the movie is presenting, but they’ll understand enough to be fully absorbed into the world it presents. During a viewing of Inside Out you’ll get to experience the gamut of emotions: Anger, Fear, Disgust, Sadness, and Joy and all the combinations in between. It’s a cinematic experience not to be missed. Go see it!