Pixar’s first film in two years takes its place among the studio’s very best — which is really saying something.
That’s long-term memory… you’ll get lost in there!
Come on, think positive!
Okay… I’m *positive* you will get lost in there.
If you were worried about Pixar, you shouldn’t have been.
While the animation juggernaut has been steadily churning out films since 1995, most of them brilliant (and all but one “really good”), in recent years some of the shine has come off the company. What was their last release that was universally beloved? Probably 2010’s Toy Story 3, right? That capped off a run of unprecedented critical success — including two Best Picture nominations — that they seem unlikely to approach again. Since then, they’ve released their only “bad” film (Cars 2), a beautiful if slight original with a checkered production history (Brave), and a prequel that I loved more than most (Monsters University.)
But amidst those disappointments, there has been a light at the end of the tunnel: Inside Out. “The New Pete Docter Film” is all Pixar fans have been talking about since it was first announced in 2011, and for good reason. Docter is responsible for two of the studio’s best, Monsters, Inc. and Up, and is as close to bulletproof as Pixar has. Inside Out is also a kind of original high concept the studio has never tackled before, in bringing to life abstract ideas like emotions and memory. Most importantly, it hopes to deliver in spades what seems to be the critical question for any Pixar release: Will it make you cry?
Inside Out lives up to the hype. Inside Out is a candy-colored, heart-yanking masterpiece. It bursts with creativity in every frame, and pulls off the (increasingly) rare trick of showing us something we’ve truly never seen before: the inside of a child’s mind as part command center, part warehouse, part theme park, and every bit of it ringing true. Docter’s films have always worn their emotions on their sleeve, and now he gets to play with them as actual characters.
The story, which functions on two separate planes, is part allegorical; the setup is that our minds are “run” by a set of conflicting personalities: Joy, Sadness, Fear, Disgust, and Anger. As we go through our lives, they take turns at the controls, shaping our feelings and our reactions, creating what they call “core memories” for the passions that help make us who we are. This particular mind belongs to an 11-year-old girl named Riley (Kaitlyn Dias); she loves her family, her friends, hockey, and being a goofball. Her parents called her their “little bundle of joy” the day she was born, and indeed, it is Joy itself (Amy Poehler, Pixar’s best casting hire since Ellen DeGeneres) who takes the lead inside Riley’s mind.
But when Riley’s family decides to move from Minnesota all the way to San Francisco, far from everything she has ever known, things begin to unravel. If the “real world” story feels familiar, that’s partly the point, because the emotions are; it just resonates in a deeper way. Fear (Bill Hader) makes a 1000-page list of all the things that could go wrong on her first day of school. Disgust (Mindy Kaling) turns up her nose at San Fran’s sorry excuse for pizza. Anger (Lewis Black) blows his stack over the family’s moving truck being delayed. And Sadness (Phyllis Smith)… well, Sadness is sad, and has the unusual ability to turn even Riley’s best memories — which all live inside translucent orbs the relative size of bowling balls — blue. Despite Joy’s best efforts, things get out of hand, and she and Sadness quickly find themselves stranded out in the furthest reaches of Riley’s mind. Meanwhile, Anger, Disgust, and Fear have to hold down the fort the best they can before Riley is irrevocably changed. How well do you think that’ll go?
Inside Out is a gift for parents, and not just because it’s an unlikely reunion for Aughts-era NBC (Poehler from Parks and Rec, Smith and Kaling from The Office, Hader from SNL), but because it gives us a brand-new vocabulary for talking with our kids. The world that Docter and his co-director, Ronnie del Carmen, have created is richly layered, and gives faces and scenery to difficult concepts like “subconscious,” “imagination,” and “train of thought.” It depicts our dreams as the product of an internal movie studio that annoys the Headquarters team with its recycled plots and bad acting. It also features the the flat-out weirdest sequence in the studio’s history, diving into cubism and deconstructionism with a verve that would have made Chuck Jones proud. And in true Pixar fashion, it finds tragedy in the mundane; I defy you not to be wrecked by Bing Bong (Richard Kind), Riley’s forgotten invisible friend, wandering the wastelands of her memories like a ronin without a master to serve.
The animation itself, in a detour from Pixar’s recent interest in photo-realism, bends towards the both the surreal and the impressionistic; the emotions are spongey, fuzzy, or sprite-like, depending on what fits them best. The common “workers” of Riley’s mind resemble gumdrops. Kids’ minds, after all, are a jumble, and though we as adults have evolved somewhat, we don’t have it totally figured out, either (as we see in the scene from the trailers, an inspired look inside the minds of Riley’s parents). It’s clever that though Riley’s emotions try to deal with the film’s events like grown-ups, they only have the information available to an 11-year-old girl. Anger rubs his hands together with glee, hoping for an opportunity to use that one “really good” curse word he knows. Joy, with all the indefatigable, over-caffeinated optimism of Poehler’s Leslie Knope, throws herself headlong into problem after problem, steamrolling the others in an effort to keep Riley happy at the expense of her own maturation. And as Sadness, Smith is a revelatory counter-point, and you root for her just as hard because, as “mature adults,” we understand the value of melancholy.
Unlike Up, Inside Out doesn’t hit like a sledgehammer. Instead it builds slowly, laying on the pressure and anxiety, until in the final act the dam bursts and its unexpected power washes over you like a tidal wave. The voice cast is so good with the comedy (I particularly enjoyed Lewis Black, who’s basically playing his Daily Show persona) that when the story turns to pathos, and they nail that too, it hits even harder. And throughout, maestro Michael Giacchino’s exceptional score, with its electronic influence and piercing melodies, elevates everything. After Up (which won him an Oscar), this may be the best, most complex work he’s ever done.
Pixar’s record may no longer be spotless, but Inside Out proves that the studio still has greatness in them. With more original films in their pipeline (including November’s The Good Dinosaur), I’m ready for a renaissance, but I don’t know if any of them can be better than this one — the question isn’t if you’ll cry, but how many times.
Inside Out is proceeded by the short film “Lava,” Pixar’s first sort-of musical, which is utterly charming and worth the price of admission on its own. It had me in tears before the real movie even started. F-ing Pixar.
Updated Objective Pixar Rankings:
2. Toy Story 2
3. The Incredibles (my personal favorite)
4. Monsters, Inc.
6. Inside Out
8. Toy Story 3
9. Finding Nemo
10. Toy Story
11. Monsters University
12. A Bug’s Life
15. Cars 2