For nearly 15 years Pixar was the most inventive studio in Hollywood. I don’t think I’m being hyperbolic when I say that, either. The visuals they concocted were always revolutionary and their screenplays deftly blended humor for all ages, but their knack for storytelling made their films instant classics upon arrival. Much has been said about Pixar’s rigorous rubric for a film’s story, but over the last few years it’s been as if their values changed. The patience and care they once possessed for storytelling, especially when it came to crafting original tales, was replaced with an interest in franchising. There’s nothing inherently wrong with franchising, but when toy sales are the inspiration over narrative illumination, quality dips. Cars 2 and Monster’s University, I liked the latter a fair amount, were significantly weak entries into Pixar’s canon, with neither of them particularly breaking the mold. After being absent from cinemas for two years, Pixar returns in a major way with Inside Out.
Directed by Pete Docter, the man behind Pixar’s most emotionally damaging film (Up), Inside Out brings us on a ride through the mind of a teenage girl. Within that girl’s precious mind are five emotions painting her memories and dictating her interactions with the world. The personified five emotions are: Joy (Amy Poehler), Sadness (Phyllis Smith), Fear (Bill Hader), Anger (Louis Black) and Disgust (Mindy Kaling). Our female subject is Riley, a hockey loving Minnesotan that’s content with her Midwest upbringing. She has everything she needs, which makes Joy the de facto leader of Riley’s mind. But Riley’s happiness, along with Joy’s cranial control, melts away when her family moves to San Francisco. Riley’s integration in to her new home, school, and city is catastrophic. Worsening matters is the increased activity of Sadness, whose presence and touch reshape Riley’s memories. Through a series of unfortunate events, Joy and Sadness are thrust into the deep recesses of Riley’s mind, unable to prevent Riley’s San Francisco experience from creating dark, everlasting effects on her personality.
There’s an impressive narrative and emotional complexity found within Inside Out that very few animated films would dare to tackle. The parallel structure of Riley’s journey intertwined with Joy and Sadness’ adventure is not only digestible for children, but masterfully establishes a sense of urgency that propels the film’s action forward. Beyond establishing an impressive structure and pace, Docter, along with co-writers Meg LeFauve and Josh Cooley, let their imaginations run wild. From the personification of the emotions and their visual interpretation to the visualization of the subconscious and faded memories, Inside Out is nothing short of ingenious. Being that this is an animated film, there’s a great deal of fun, jokes, and word play running rampant throughout. A gag about a gum commercial jingle is especially hilarious and on point. The voice work is also impressive, especially Amy Poehler and Phyllis Smith. Both actresses have a cadence and rhythm that bring their characters to life. I couldn’t imagine them being voiced by anyone else.
Amidst the film’s creativity, explosive energy and buoyant color scheme, there are moments of devastating melancholy. As he demonstrated in Up, Docter isn’t afraid of dark themes or somber scenes. The dissolution of a distant memory or the tears of an abandoned imaginary friend are heartbreaking moments found in Inside Out. Tragic moments like these aren’t placed before us simply because Docter wants a level of maturity in his cartoon. Rather, they’re present because they help deliver a message few animated films deliver to children: life is a kaleidoscope of warring emotions. It’s a wonderful primer for children, especially those in the process of puberty, that happiness and sadness provide context for one another. It’s even a nice reminder for adults facing contentious times. Inside Out is a colorful, ingenious and emotionally powerful film about the necessity of emotions in our lives.