As far as I’m concerned, the golden age of Pixar will always be the hat trick of three masterpieces they pulled off during the late 00s with Ratatouille, Wall-E, and Up. The animation giants’ 2010s efforts have mostly consisted of sequels to their biggest hits, along with a return to original content with Brave, which was more of an above average Disney movie than a Pixar groundbreaker. I like the recent Pixar sequels, Toy Story 3 was the best in the series, Monsters University was a fun G-rated remake of Revenge of the Nerds, and even Cars 2 had some bright spots.
Yet ever since 2009’s heartbreaking and gorgeous Up, we’ve been clamoring to feel that intense connection to characters who were essentially comprised of a bunch of 1s and 0s. Up helmer Pete Docter returns with Inside Out, Pixar’s first original production in three years, and even though it’s not a bona fide masterwork, it signifies a return to form for Pixar. It’s a delightful, gorgeous, endlessly creative, and, perhaps in tune with the film’s subject matter, deeply emotionally engaging experience.
The concept is basically the same as the early 90s sitcom Herman’s Head, if you even remember that show, but of course with way better writing. Inside Out imagines that our emotions are split into distinct personalities in our minds, clamoring to take control of a psychedelic version of the Enterprise captain’s deck in order to become the dominant emotion at any given situation. The story focuses on the emotions of a 12-year-old girl named Riley (Kaitlyn Dias), who finds herself confused, angry, and homesick after her family relocates from Minnesota to San Francisco. Their new home is a dump (Considering current San Francisco real estate, it probably costs at least 6800 dollars a month), she can’t relate to the hipster culture, and she deeply misses her old friends.
Inside Riley’s mind, Joy (Amy Poehler) tries her best to find the silver lining in every upsetting situation in Riley’s life while struggling to keep the other emotions, Sadness (Phyllis Smith), Fear (Bill Hader), Anger (Lewis Black), and Disgust (Mindy Kaling) away from the control panel so Riley doesn’t spiral into a bewildered cocktail of anxiety and depression. Even though Joy is a born leader, she has a narrow view of how Riley’s emotions are supposed to work. She wants Riley to be nothing but happy 24/7, while not fully comprehending that happiness sometimes can’t exist without the other emotions to support it.
Of course the one emotion that she wants to suppress completely is Sadness, as she comes up with menial tasks for Sadness to do, such as reading the entire set of manuals on how Riley’s mind is supposed to work, in order to keep her busy and away from the control panel. But when an accident throws Joy and Sadness out of the control deck and into the deeper crevices of the mind, where separate sections of Riley’s mind, such as memories, dreams, and the subconscious form a complex labyrinth. Joy and Sadness have to make their way back before Anger, Fear, and Disgust bungle up the whole operation during such a crucial time in Riley’s life.
The different universes in Riley’s mind are all very distinct and imaginative. My favorite is where Riley’s abstract thought is stored, taking the characters through every stage of abstract art until they’re nothing but a straight line on a blank canvas. I can’t be sure, but I looked at that sequence as a wink from the animators to the famous Daffy Duck cartoon Duck Amuck. The way that Inside Out visualizes childhood depression through a fantasy world is not handled as subtly as Spike Jonze’s vastly underrated Where The Wild Things Are, but it doesn’t spoon feed its younger audience by pandering to them and giving dry exposition to every emotional state.
Joy and Sadness’ character arcs, which create the thematic drive of the screenplay, are dealt with in very creative visual ways. The way that each memory, represented by clear orbs, can be manipulated using each emotion’s individual color creates a tender study on how much our emotional reactions to our memories can change over time. There’s also a heartbreaking commentary on the loss of childhood innocence via the heroic journey of Bing Bong (Richard Kind), Riley’s goofy imaginary friend from her toddler days, who guides Joy and Sadness through their perilous journey back to the control deck.
As near perfect as Inside Out is with the way it summarizes and visualizes the complex emotional patterns of childhood (And even adulthood, during some very funny scenes that show us the minds of the parents), you shouldn’t take your whole family to go see it for purely educational reasons. This is a profoundly entertaining and touching film where Pixar once again shows us that family entertainment doesn’t have to be a random explosion of bright colors and loud noises.
PS: As usual for Pixar releases, a short cartoon precedes the feature. In this case, Lava, about a lonely volcano looking for a mate, might be Pixar’s best short yet.