There’s few other movie companies with a track record like Pixar Studios. Groundbreaking and consistently successful at the box office, Pixar has developed into a brand both admired and envied. Parent company Disney certainly knew what they were doing when they acquired the studio back in 2005, but their partnership goes back long before even that. Starting with the phenomenon that was Toy Story (1995), Pixar and Disney have continued their win streak for 20 years strong, winning multiple awards and continually breaking box office records in the animated category. But, even with the hot streak that Pixar has had, it’s by no means a given that everything they touch turns to gold; although for a period in the mid aughts, it certainly looked like that was the case. In recent years, Pixar has been showing some signs of weakness, at least in the quality of their storytelling (they have still dominated at the box office). This was clearly evident with the lackluster Cars 2 (2011), the only film made by the studio that was panned by critics and the first instance where it looked like the studio was just lazy. Hope was high with the follow-up Brave (2012), but sadly that film also disappointed; it was beautiful to look at but hollow and disingenuous as a story. I enjoyed the film that followed, Monsters University (2013), but a lot of other fans did not as they’ve grown weary of too many sequels dominating the animated landscape. And to compound the problem for Pixar, they’ve seen a lot more competition from other studios who have upped their game in recent years and are challenging them for dominance in the market; whether it’s rival Dreamworks (How to Train Your Dragon), upstart Illumination (Despicable Me) or Disney’s own in house animation department (Frozen).
So, with a lagging output from their own lineup of films and more competition from other studios, there’s more pressure on Pixar now than ever before to deliver something special. I think part of what has been Pixar’s problem in recent years is that they’ve become a victim of their own success. People’s expectations for the studio have become almost unfairly high, and their ability to exceed those expectations is becoming nearly impossible to meet. But, at the same time, they’ve opened themselves up to disappointment from audiences by relying too heavily on familiarity in their stories. They’ve always delivered stunningly beautiful animation, but what’s made Pixar different from everyone else has been their emphasis on story and characters. The best of their movies also feel complete as stories too, making the experiences worthwhile. But, if your movies lack cohesion and effort, then they feel incomplete or uninteresting. Pixar seemed to be falling into this trap by delivering things that felt like retreads rather than original ideas. Cars 2 and Monsters University told us nothing new about the worlds they depict, and Brave was just another fairy tale and nothing more. It seems from this recent trend that Pixar was just following the market instead of driving it, which is very uncharacteristic for such a groundbreaking company. Something new and fresh needed to shake things up to get the studio back on track and thankfully acclaimed Pixar director Pete Doctor (Monsters Inc., Up) has just the movie that they needed right now. That movie is the remarkably original and endlessly intriguing Inside Out.
Inside Out is really unlike anything we’ve seen from Pixar or any animation studio before. Part of the allure of this movie is the concept behind it, where the human mind is visualized as a fully realized world with different communities working together to form a person’s personality, and all of our key emotions are personified as individual characters. But, for Pixar, it’s not just about the concept alone; it’s how they use it. The story rolls out on two levels; one, it tells the story of a pre-teen girl named Riley (Kaitlyn Dias) as her family moves to the city of San Francisco, uprooting her into an unknown and challenging new life, and two it follows the lives of the different emotions inside her mind, who govern all the choices and memories that she makes in her life. Chief among the emotions is Joy (Amy Poehler), and her team is made up of Disgust (Mindy Kaling), Fear (Bill Hader), Anger (Lewis Black), and the troublesome Sadness (Phyllis Smith). Joy tries her best to keep Riley happy and positive throughout her life, but Sadness wants to help out more, which messes up much of Joy’s plans. After the two come into conflict over one of Riley’s core memories (which is presented in the form of a glowing sphere), both Sadness and Joy are thrown out of the control room and into the far reaches of Riley’s subconscious mind, leaving only Disgust, Anger and Fear left to steer the ship. With what seems like an endless expanse between them and home, both Joy and Sadness must overcome their differences in order to return themselves and Riley’s core memories back where they belong. And the road back is about as complex and treacherous as you would expect the human mind to be.
It’s a pretty heady concept for a movie aimed at kids, but of course this is Pixar we’re talking about; the studio that caters to the child in all of us. So, how does Inside Out fare against the rest of Pixar’s stable of films? Pretty well actually. In fact, I would easily put this in the Top 5 films that they have made. This is another home run by the studio and is exactly the kind of movie that they needed to get them back on track. From the very opening shot, showing Joy emerging out of the void to illicit the first squeal of laughter out of a newborn Riley, to the final hilarious montage during the credits, Inside Out is an absolute delight. It does exactly what the greatest films from Pixar have always done which is take a great concept and make it work with a compelling story and incredible characters. But, even more remarkable than that is how well they execute the underlying premise of the movie. Visualizing the human mind as it’s own world is easy enough to comprehend on paper, but to actually make it work on film is another thing. Making it comprehensible to younger kids is especially challenging, but the movie does a remarkable job of laying out exactly how this world works without ever spoon feeding needless exposition to it’s audience. In fact, the wonder of this movie is seeing all the clever different ways it visualizes the inner workings of the mind; like having a train of thought appear as an actual train, or dreams being produced inside a movie studio (a literal dream factory as it were). But, even with all the amazing visuals, Pixar still manages to find the heart at the center of this story and that’s what helps to make Inside Out as special as it is.
Like the best of Pixar’s output, story is paramount to it’s success. At the heart of it, this story is about polar opposites working together and finding the value in one another. Although Joy isn’t malicious in nature, she certainly isn’t perfect either, and much of the film’s conflict comes from her unwillingness to let Sadness be a crucial part of the team. As the story goes along, we see an understanding build between the two, and Joy learns that you need sadness in life in order to appreciate the joy, something in which she had failed to see before. Essentially, it’s about looking beyond differences just as much as it is about fighting your emotions and finding that right balance. It also makes us look at complex ideas in a straight forward and entertaining way, which is what Pixar is best at. Much like how Wall-E (2008) gave us a look at environmentalism, or how The Incredibles (2004) made us look at objectivism, Inside Out makes statements about human psychology and avoids ever trying to lecture to it’s audience. Pixar has always let the stories carry themselves and statements about the larger world, whether pointed or not, have always seemed like a by product rather than the main focus of their movies. It’s something that really sets them apart from other, less subtle filmmakers. And best of all is that it doesn’t distract from the plot either. Inside Out sticks firmly to it’s goal and that’s to entertain, whether it’s with huge laughs or with tear-inducing heartbreak.
Apart from the story, the other thing that audiences will absolutely love about this movie is the characters. Each character is instantly recognizable and the look perfectly matches the emotion that they represent. Disgust of course is green, with a perpetual sneering look of anguish on her face. Purple hued Fear always looks hunched over like he’s about to roll up into a ball for protection. Red hot Anger is a tiny ball of rage and literally is only seconds from firing up all the time. And then we get the key characters of Joy and Sadness, perfectly off setting each other in bright yellow and deep blue. Each character is distinctive and their personalities are all perfectly realized in their appearance. The designs are also matched with perfectly cast voices as well. Saturday Night Live alum Amy Poehler is the natural choice for Joy, as are Mindy Kaling (The Mindy Project) for Disgust and Bill Hader (SNL) for Fear. Even more perfect is comedian Lewis Black as Anger, considering that his comedy act is famously built around his hilarious over-the-top rage, and there are some laugh out loud bits in the movie that exploit that perfectly. The Office’s Phyllis Smith’s performance as Sadness however may be the strongest, as she makes the character both hilarious and heartbreaking at the same time, creating a very well rounded character. Plus, her comedic timing and line delivery are some of the best parts of the movie. But, the great character work isn’t just limited to the Emotions. The human characters are also well done, especially the crucial character of Riley. She may very well be the best animated human character that Pixar has done to date. The subtlety of her animation is really astounding, and it makes those bizarre looking human models of Andy and Sid from Toy Story seem very primitive by comparison. Indeed, these are characters that will absolutely earn their place among the likes of Woody, Buzz Lightyear, Dory, and all of Pixar’s other greatest characters.
Now, is Inside Out a perfect movie? Not quite, but pretty close. The one flaw I would say that the movie has is the pacing and familiarity of the plot. Pixar seems to love stories about characters getting lost in an unfamiliar world and finding their true selves on the way home. We’ve seen it in Toy Story (1995), Finding Nemo (2003), Wall-E (2008) and Up (2009), and the same kind of story plays out again here in Inside Out. It’s an unfortunate retread of familiar ground, which has been Pixar’s weakness in recent years. But the creativity put into the journey helps to make this a bit more acceptable this time around. I for one didn’t mind seeing Pixar reuse this same type of plot, just as long as it did something fresh with it and added in a few surprises, which it does. But, even still, there are times when you feel like the concept itself could have been explored differently; that way the end result would’ve felt a little more unexpected. That would be the film’s only other fault; a very rushed and anti-climatic conclusion, though still with some heartfelt emotion present. Overall, even with faults in some of the plot, the movie’s high points still dominate the overall experience. As the story goes along, I forgave most of the faults just because the creativity was strong enough to make those things not matter as much. At some points, I was also just surprised by some of the risks the movie takes. Though the movie is light-hearted in tone, it’s also not afraid to go a little dark at some points, even to the point of tragedy. I’m not going to spoil what happens for you, but there was a moment in this movie that actually brought the audience I saw this with to tears; even openly crying in some cases. Think on the same level of Bambi’s Mom dying or the opening montage of Up, and that’s what this moment managed to accomplish. Though sad, it thankfully doesn’t spoil the mood of the movie and actually it does help to enhance it. After all, this is a story about Joy and Sadness working together, so naturally the movie’s plot should reflect that. But, even still, be prepared to weep in between the many laughs throughout the film.
In many different ways, this is exactly the kind of movie that Pixar needed to reassert itself as the leader in the animation community, as well as in the film industry in general. It’s got all the elements of a great Pixar movie, but it doesn’t rest on it’s laurels either. It takes risks, but without alienating it’s audience. I am relieved to see this powerhouse studio gain it’s mojo back with this one, and I’m sure that audiences will feel the same way. It may be hard right now to see exactly how this one will line up against some of Pixar’s other classics, but I can certianly say for myself that it’s among their best efforts. Wall-E is still my favorite overall, and some of the Toy Story‘s still resonate a little stronger, but Inside Out puts to shame most of the other recent output from the studio. I only wish that the same care with the story and these characters could’ve been used in something as promising as Brave, which sorely lacks everything that this movie has. Also, unlike other Pixar movies, which work best as self contained stories, I actually believe Inside Out would be well served with a sequel. The movie feels like it’s only scratched the surface with this concept, and I would love to see the continuing adventures of these characters. Who knows; maybe if the movie does well enough at the box office, that could certainly happen. More than anything, this is almost certainly going to be one of the year’s best films, if not one of the most entertaining. As is almost always the case with Pixar, this will be a movie with timeless appeal that will indeed be enjoyed by audiences young and old for generations to come. And that’s something that Pixar can absolutely be joyful about.