Few studios in the history of Hollywood has had as successful a run as Pixar has. Toy Story. The Incredibles. Monsters, Inc. Finding Nemo. Up. These were films that not only transcended being great animated films to becoming great films period, but also they were films that are as fresh today as the day they were made, and will likely hold up for decades to come. They are classics in every sense of the word.
Pixar seemed unstoppable. Then came Cars, a vanity project that still stands as Pixar’s lowest grossing film to date. Its sequel, Cars 2, did better at the box office, but was lambasted by the critics. Brave had to add a director mid-stream and Monsters University was a sequel that failed to capture the heart and excitement (or the reviews) of the original. And The Good Dinosaur, what was meant to be Pixar’s 2014 film, was in such dire straits that a complete rehaul had to be done on the project, causing it to be delayed for over a year so a from-the-ground-up reworking could be done. It appeared that the bloom was off the Pixar rose.
So, Inside Out might be viewed by some as a way of Pixar either reaffirming its reputation as the home of quality computer animated fare or yet another swirl in the downward spiral.
I can safely say that it is the former. Pixar is back, baby, and in a big way. And Inside Out might be its best film to date.
The film focuses on a 11-year-old girl named Riley (Kaitlyn Dias) whose every action is dictated by five emotions inside her head–Joy (Amy Poehler), the de facto leader determined to keep Riley happy,Anger (Lewis Black), who is there to keep thing fair, Fear (Bill Hader), who keeps Riley safe from harm, Disgust (Mindy Kaling), who keeps her safe in other ways, and Sadness (Phyllis Smith), whose role is limited by Joy in order to ensure Riley’s happiness.
The emotions create memories for Riley in the shape of orbs color-coded with the emotion that created it, and especially potent memories serve the purpose of forming the tenets or Riley’s personality. These are all color-coded for Joy, until a move from Minnesota to San Francisco creates a core memory colored blue to represent Sadness. Joy’s attempt to removed this sad memory before it spoils Riley’s til then happy life results in her and Sadness being transported to the far side of Riley’s mind with all of Riley’s core memories. Attempts by the rest to keep Riley’s happy status quo fail miserably, and it soon becomes a race against time for Joy and Sadness to get back to headquarters before the Riley they know and love is lost forever.
That’s a complex plot for a kids movie, but it never seems like it. This is Pixar at its storytelling finest. Everything you need to know is explained in a simple, yet entertaining way so that everyone from 6 to 60 do not feel lost. If you are familiar with the concept of Chekov’s Gun, you be able to identify how certain things introduced in the first act will play out by the time the climax rolls around. But the journey between is so much fun you won’t mind the film embracing those somewhat predictable plot points.
But that’s not the only mastery on display here. The entire film is inventive and daring, with more belly laughs than any other Pixar film, and more effective tearjerking moments too. I was awestruck by the brilliance on display here, particularly in the “abstract thinking” segment. Even ideas that we’ve seen before, like Riley’s dreams being constructed in a Hollywood-like soundstage, are given fresh spins that separate them from what has come before. This is Pixar working on all cylinders and it is beautiful to see.
One of the major reasons why the film is such a success is the voice cast. Each actor is perfectly cast in the character they play. Lewis Black essentially does a kid-friendly version of his stand-up act, but since I love his stand-up act and it fits the character, Anger ends up being the high point of the film for me.
If there is one flaw in the film, it would be the character of Disgust. Not with Mindy Kaling’s performance, mind you, it’s great. But Disgust is essentially superfluous. She is defined in such a way that her responsibilities could very well be given to Fear, and she seems to exist in the film only because she is needed to help the heroes get past a particularly nasty impasse in the climax. Normally this would irk me way more than is does, but the rest of the film is so good that I am more than willing to ignore the character as a plot device.
Please don’t let that minor qualm turn you off from the movie. Inside Out is Pixar at its finest. It has the trademark excellent storytelling and characterization you expect from the company. You will laugh, you will be moved and you will be entertained. And you’ll want to go back again.