The last few years have been kind of dispiriting for old-time Pixar fans (i.e. people like me who remember seeing Tin Toy at animation festivals before it became the first computer-animated film to win the Oscar for best animated short).
The studio, which was pushing in ever stranger and more adventurous directions prior to its purchase by the Disney corporation a decade ago, had lost some of its mojo since then, as it cranked out unnecessary sequels — one good (Toy Story 3), one bad (Cars 2), and one that was at least okay (Monsters University) — plus one “original” film, the reputation of which was tarnished when the studio took it away from the woman who created it and handed it over to one of her male colleagues (Brave).
Not to put too fine a point on it, but the studio, once praised as a bastion of creativity and artistic freedom, has been stuck in a rut these last few years.
Thankfully, Inside Out — directed by Pete Docter, of Monsters, Inc. fame — represents a return to form, which is both a plus and a… well, not a minus, exactly, but here’s what I mean: The film is an “original” story, completed by the filmmaker who conceptualized it in the first place, and thus represents the purest expression of what Pixar represents for many people since Docter’s last film, Up. But in some ways, it feels very much like a throwback to the Toy Story movies that got Pixar started as a feature-film studio in the first place. It’s a new story, but not that new.
Consider the premise: Instead of toys who secretly come alive and make plans for an upcoming move to a new home when the boy who plays with them isn’t in the room, the film concerns five “emotions” who secretly live inside the mind of an 11-year-old girl named Riley (Kaitlyn Dias) and are, themselves, making plans for a new home when Riley’s family moves to San Francisco at the beginning of the movie.
The chief toy, Sheriff Woody, was an upbeat, peppy, take-charge leader surrounded by various other personality types, while the chief emotion is Joy (Amy Poehler), an upbeat, peppy, take-charge leader who has to work with Sadness (Phyllis Smith), Fear (Bill Hader), Disgust (Mindy Kaling) and, my favorite, Anger (Lewis Black).
And just as Toy Story revolved around Woody’s jealous resentment of Buzz Lightyear, which was resolved only after Woody and Buzz were lost at the gas station and had to make their way home with the help of some scary, surreal playthings, Inside Out revolves around Joy’s initial determination to marginalize if not get rid of Sadness, until the two of them become lost in a distant corner of Riley’s mind and have to make their way home together through a series of bizarre and sometimes scary landscapes. (A similar odd-couple voyage formed the backbone to Finding Nemo, as well.)
There are even more parallels, which I’ll get to in a moment. But suffice it to say that elements like these feel very “safe” for Pixar, and give one the impression that the studio is staying very much within its wheelhouse.
There’s still plenty to like here, though.
First, the film revolves almost entirely around female protagonists, particularly Joy and Sadness (and let’s not forget Riley). Lewis Black’s Anger gets some of the best lines, and Joy and Sadness are helped by a character named Bing Bong, who is voiced by Pixar veteran Richard Kind (A Bug’s Life, etc.), but those are strictly supporting performances. The film ultimately belongs to the female characters, and while that has been true for many Disney films over the years, it is still something of a novelty for Pixar, which has attempted it only once before (with the aforementioned Brave).
Second, the visuals. The opening frames establish the two very different palettes for the film: our first glimpse of Riley as a baby is almost photorealistic, as are some of the environments we see later in the film, while the emergence of her emotions, somewhere inside her mind,1 is stylized and cartoony. The film works especially well if you watch it in 3D: sometimes the images inside Riley’s mind have an almost epic quality (e.g. the way Joy stands on a cliff and watches a mighty structure collapse into the void beyond), and at other times they get downright playful in the way that only animation can (e.g. a brief foray into “abstract” thought and two-dimensionality).
Third, there is the aforementioned Bing Bong, an “imaginary friend” from Riley’s preschool days who has been living in her long-term memory since she stopped playing with him. Like so much else in this film, Bing Bong harks back to the Toy Story franchise, too: he is a pastiche of things that kids love (cats, elephants, cotton candy and more), not unlike the Frankenstein’s-monster creations in Sid’s bedroom in that other film, and he has basically been abandoned by a child who outgrew him, just like Jessie and Lotso and so many others in the Toy Story sequels. In some ways Bing Bong’s fate is more bleak, because there is no way for him to move on to another child; but he also arguably accepts his fate with more grace than any of Pixar’s previous creations, and he is easily one of the film’s most memorable characters.
Fourth, there’s the impeccable vocal casting, which is particularly spot-on in the cases of Sadness (The Office’s Phyllis Smith) and Anger (the aforementioned Lewis Black, whose mannerisms were evidently studied quite carefully by the animators, not least in the scene where Anger rants about how San Francisco has ruined pizza).
Fifth, it turns out that one of the film’s central themes is memory — the role that memory plays in defining us and our relationships, and the way losing our memories can be a form of death — which is a favorite topic of mine. Memory was also a central theme in Finding Nemo, but it is given a different spin here, since instead of a fish with no long-term memory who gradually learns to remember things that are important to someone else, Inside Out revolves around a girl who starts out with some pretty solid “core memories”, which define what she values most in life, but then begins to lose touch with them as her sense of self is threatened by her family’s move away from home. We see Riley’s memories collapse and fade, not unlike the memories in Inception and Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, but here there is the added threat that Riley’s very sense of who she is could collapse along with them.
And, finally, there is the film’s other central theme, which is that Joy and Sadness do not need to compete with each other but, rather, can complement each other. When the story begins, Joy says she doesn’t know what Sadness is good for, but as the story progresses, she learns that sadness and empathy go hand-in-hand, and that sadness can lead to catharsis and make space for joy again. And as Joy learns the importance of Sadness, she gains a deeper appreciation for the other emotions too.2
The film has some other clever concepts, too, from the Memory Dump — a vast abyss from which nothing ever returns — to the movie studio which creates all the dreams and nightmares that pass through Riley’s mind while she’s asleep.
But as enjoyable and out-there as the movie can be at times, you never get the sense that Pixar is moving out of its safety zone. The film features familiar characters in familiar situations expressing familiar feelings. It’s also fairly plot-driven, and the twists and turns often hinge on physics that seem rather arbitrary.
Some people have acclaimed Inside Out as one of Pixar’s best films ever, if not the best film Pixar ever made; it’s the sort of hyperbole we often saw during the ‘Rubber Soul’ phase of the company’s history, when they put out films like WALL-E and Up that pushed the boundaries of American animation without quite redefining the form. I can’t pile that sort of praise on Inside Out myself, alas; compared to other movies starring Saturday Night Live alumni that take place inside the human mind and/or body and end on a tear-jerking note, I’m not even sure it beats Osmosis Jones, which was one of my favorite animated films around the turn of the millennium.
But it’s a solid family film, which is rare enough these days, and it’s made with genuine wit and feeling. It also gives us hope that Pixar might strike out in an original direction or two again (for example, with The Good Dinosaur, coming out later this year) before it sinks back into its neverending stream of sequels (Finding Dory next year, Toy Story 4 the year after that, and so on). Here’s hoping.
1. “Head” would be the wrong word here, as there is no indication that the emotions occupy any sort of physical space inside Riley’s brain or anything like that. When Riley runs and jumps and plays hockey etc., there is no sense of inertia affecting the emotions or the space in which they operate, and the emotions who live inside Riley never make contact with any of her biological systems (digestive, etc.). Then again, when Riley and her friend drink Slurpees together, the emotions do experience “brain freeze”.
2. Incidentally, I can’t resist noting here that Joy’s colour is orange and Sadness’s colour is blue, which means the film is partly about the reconciliation of teal and orange — though thankfully Anger, who is red, and Disgust, who is green, get their moments too, as does Fear, who is purple.