It’s been a while since we’ve gotten a genuinely great original idea from Pixar, the once unarguable masters of animation. There was a time from the mid-nineties to the late two thousands where there was nothing in animation that could match the sheer power of their work in full length and short films. The Toy Story trilogy is one of the most critically acclaimed movie series of all time and films like Up, WALL-E and Finding Nemo in particular are considered some of the best films of the millennium so far. With this, it’s unfortunate to see how the quality has dropped over the past couple of years for Pixar. Cars 2 was universally panned and I even put the stale, boring mess that is Brave as one of my worst films of 2012. I personally thought Monsters University was really entertaining but it was far from the quality we had seen from Pixar at its best. A lot has changed for the studio since they released Toy Story 3 back in 2010. Laika Entertainment, DreamWorks, Disney and Blue Cloud Studios no longer make it feel like there’s a drought of bad animated movies. There are even plenty of great animated shows on television for everyone to watch. It’s hard to say that Pixar has the reign it had five years ago.
There are times however, when a film comes along and it changes everything. The term “return to form” has been used on everything from albums to books to television shows to in this case movies. Something comes along after a long time that is filled with such ambition and such wonder that it almost makes you forget everything that has been happening poorly for a while. If Inside Out isn’t a return to form, I don’t know what is. The film is perhaps the most brilliant idea Pixar has ever come up with and it’s easily one of their best films to date. Inside Out manages to be both a personal, intimate look into the life of a child as well as an epic, fantastical journey through a land of endless imagination and possibilities.
The basic premise of Inside Out is that inside the head of every single person there are these emotions that are controlling every move we make. That doesn’t sound unique but what I really mean is that these emotions are literally controlling you. The film turns the emotions Joy (Amy Poehler), Sadness (Phyllis Smith), Fear (Bill Hader), Anger (Lewis Black) and Disgust (Mindy Kaling) into these little creatures that are constantly controlling your every move and deciding how you’re going to react through this giant control panel that they have. These particular emotions are controlling Riley (Kaitlyn Dias), an eleven year old girl living in Minnesota. When Riley’s family moves to New York City, her emotions are forced to adapt and respond to the new changes within her life. To make things worse, an accident causes Joy and Sadness to get lost and they have to find a way to journey through all the different places of her mind to get back to the control panel.
One of the most surprising and impressive things about Inside Out was the films ability to bring this idea to life without it feeling like a total train wreck. The human mind is a crazy and unpredictable place that has no real certainties about it. Trying to make a straightforward world out of it could be confusing and sloppy if done incorrectly. The film that comes to mind for me was the also animated Rise of the Guardians. This film featured an ambitious concept but it took everything so literally and it spent so much time trying to present itself as this serious, perfectly constructed thing that it ended up feeling poorly crafted and confusing the more you thought about how everything was supposed to work.
Luckily, this movie manages to do things in a way that feels complex without it ever feeling too convoluted. Part of the greatness of this film is that it never gets caught up in the different rules and reasons for this land that the audience is in. Director and writer Pete Doctor realizes how abstract the concept is and he embraces it for that without trying to tie it down to any absolute explanations. The world he creates is massive and filled with all these different little quirks but it’s never sloppy because there’s still that sense that everything here isn’t supposed to be dissected and perfectly structured like Interstellar or Looper, the film instead tries to create this dreamlike look into the mind of Riley that allows you to stop asking how everything works and instead look at how accurately all of these different places are a part of her psyche whether it be her nightmares, her memories or her hopes among other things. In that way, the world is less science fiction and more psychological and in doing so it’s more Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind than Interstellar.
The films giant theme above all else is that the mind is this changing, expanding thing that is filled with darkness and happiness and old and new and it can be ultimately this beautiful, beautiful thing. It’s a vast point but it allows for Inside Out to say a lot of different things about a lot of different subjects. For example, the way the film discusses our memories is strange and in a way touching. To this world, we are filled with these core memories that largely influence us as well as these smaller, more inane memories that happen to us in our daily lives. There’s a great running joke where the emotions keep accidently playing this memory of a terrible, catchy jingle for a gum commercial. There’s also a point where along the journey back home, Joy and Sadness meet Bing Bong, an old imaginary friend of Riley from when she much younger. He’s trying to find importance to Riley again and he teams up with them in their quest as he realizes how all of the dreams and moments she had with him are being lost and long forgotten. A moment where he attempts to make a difference again ends up being the most powerful moment of the whole movie and it provides something that audiences will be thinking about for a while.
A lot of the film is talking about what it is that we remember and how these things impact us emotionally and how all these things that we reflect on and allow to influence us are in a constant state of movement. People we once thought were are best friends can change in a second. Items we used to hold dearly can totally lose their value to us and these tiny, meaningless bits of nonsense that keep coming up in our heads at random moments. Though the story ends up being about how beautiful we can be, there’s also a tragedy to the character of Bing Bong (Richard Kind) and how all of these dreams we have can disappear so subtly until we don’t even remember these things that once meant the world to us. The film isn’t afraid to present us as we are and that really comes into play when the movie talks about the way we remember things and the way we use these memories in our daily life.
The memory isn’t the only thing that’s expressed in this fascinating and quirky new light. There’s a film studio in her head that shoots the dreams she has. At one point, Joy and Sadness use Riley’s memory of a clown as a way to cause a nightmare that will make her up so that they can transport to other areas of her mind. In a hilarious scene, Joy makes this bridge out of the clones of Riley’s vision of a perfect boyfriend. This one time, the other emotions also come up with this plan to get Riley to move back to Minnesota and once they plant it in her head, they can’t stop her from doing it. There are these different worlds that are made up from the different areas of Riley’s brain and they collapse and rebuild as she gets older. The way the emotions are from person to person are different and they change and grow up with the person as time goes by. During the credits, we even get these funny glimpses into the emotions of a cat and a dog. There are countless of these comments and ideas that the film makes throughout and for once in a long time, the studio seems at their most alert and awake, building this abstract world that ends up being this total commentary for the different little things that happen within us throughout all of our lives.
And while on the subject, this is possibly the most visually inventive movie Pixar has made to date and the work done here genuinely makes me wish animation was taken seriously in the best director category. People toss aside many studio films as being light and forgettable as a work of art. Sometimes a film will come along like this or Gravity or Mad Max: Fury Road that reminds you of the incredible things that can happen if you were to give a director tons of money to bring their dreams to the largest level possible. The 3D that this film has actually uses it to dive you deeper into this world rather than to present it to you as a stupid gimmick. This is a stunning looking movie that has so much different places for the audiences to look at and the way all of these different ideas are shown are so detailed and creative and I’m truly worried right now that I won’t be able to get to all of the greatness of this film in one review. What Pete Doctor did in creating this place to such a degree at least deserves to be noted in the best director category during Oscar season.
As you might expect, the other main focus of the film besides memories is also on our emotions. The brilliant thing is that we spend much more time with the emotions than with the actual person and yet the emotions are so well crafted that you still feel that by the end you have learned quite a bit about her. Her anger and her fears and her joy act very mature and professional like they’re running this factory but what they’re talking about and the things they are focusing on still feels so childlike and true of the thoughts of her age. They decide every single move she makes and they build on these memories she has and the way she feels when she remembers them.
I want to talk about the great things this film does is the relationship between Joy and Sadness both on a dialogue level and on a psychological level. The relationship between the two of them is funny and charming as these two widely different things have to deal with their widely different way of looking at life. Phyllis Smith and Amy Poehler are great in their parts as they get to play to their acting talents whether it is in Poehler’s eccentricity and quirkiness or Smith’s shyness and mopiness. Throughout the film, Joy sees sadness as something that needs to be avoided and needs to be kept in the background away from the other emotions. In a key moment later on, Joy reflects on a core memory and sees the impact that both Joy and Sadness had on it. She realizes that the both of them play an equal part in what makes her human. In the end, it isn’t joy that saves the day but sadness that saves the day and allows for Riley to get cope with her problems.
The climax of the film isn’t some big action scene but rather the confrontation between Riley and her parents and the ultimate acceptance of the importance of sadness in life. This is something vital that is generally not reflected on in most movies and most aspects of our culture. To some, the main goal of everything is to be constantly happy all the time, that’s the big win and sadness is something that you must destroy. Fear is something inside of you that must be gotten rid of for joy. Everyone must be a winner and you have to avoid experiences that will cause anything other than happiness as much as possible. This is a dangerous and simply unrealistic perspective to have and it’s important for everyone to understand the importance of all of these other feelings. You can’t just feel one all the time, you have to embrace life for what it is and you have to know that is okay to be sad or angry or scared because all of these things are important in guiding us through are challenges.
In terms of problems I might’ve had with the movie, I wish Disgust could’ve been given more screen time. She never gets as much seems as the other characters and comes off as less important. But that’s such a small gripe even Disgust gets a scene where the value is proven as she influences another emotion in doing something.
This might be one of the most challenging movies I’ve ever had to review. There’s so much that happens and there’s so much that can be discussed and so much that can be analyzed that I plan to immediately rewatch it when it comes to theaters. Inside Out is beautiful looking detailed and deeply layered exploration through the mind of a human being. There so many great little things that are in this movie that are worth being presented that I couldn’t even go into full detail about. For example, they couldn’t have had more perfect casting for Anger than Lewis Black. Pixar might not be the kings of animation that they used to be, but with Inside Out they move themselves back to the top shelf.
Release Date: 6/19/2015
Cast: Amy Poehler, Bill Hader, Lewis Black, Phyllis Smith, Mindy Kaling, Richard Kind and Kaitlyn Dias
Directed by: Pete Docter and Ronaldo Del Carmen
Screenplay by: Pete Docter, Ronaldo Del Carmen, Meg LeFauve and Josh Cooley