It has been a few years since Pixar released the sort of film that made them the top flight of American animation. Sequels like Cars 2 and Monsters University failed to move the dial, and while Brave showed promise, it never seemed to get out of second gear. That sense of reliability that Pixar would release a film every 18 months and blow back the collective hair of the movie going audience began to fade into a dying ember in the memory. Enter Pete Docter, the man who directed the last truly transcendent Pixar film, Up, as well as Monsters Inc, one of those landmark films that truly established the studio was more than the sum of its Toy Stories. Surely he could get them back on the right track.
Inside Out takes its audience inside the mind of Riley, a precocious eleven year old girl from Minnesota with a great life, great parents (played by Diane Lane and Kyle MacLachlan) and a love of hockey. Inside her head, her actions and moods are determined by a group of five anthropomorphic emotions, Joy, Sadness, Fear, Disgust and Anger (Amy Poehler, Phyllis Smith, Bill Hader, Mindy Kaling and Lewis Black in that order). Joy has been running the majority of the show for much of Riley’s young life, zealously protecting her “core memories” (those moments in life that come to define one’s personality on a foundational level) of family, friendship, honesty, goofiness and hockey (the film is about hockey surprisingly often). Everyone wants the best for Riley, but Sadness has an unintentional habit of messing with Riley’s memories and turning them blue (both figuratively and literally). When Riley’s parents relocate the family from Minnesota to San Francisco, an accident causes both Joy and Sadness to be sent down into Long Term Memory, leaving Fear, Anger and Disgust and their increasing ineptitude in charge. With the help of Riley’s imaginary childhood friend Bing Bong (an elephant-thing dressed like a hobo and voiced by Richard Kind), Joy and Sadness must find their way back to headquarters and set things right.
This is surely Pixar’s most daring film in a long time, likely since Andrew Stanton’s masterpiece WALL-E. Inside Out is an idea factory, taking the central premise and spinning it out in all sorts of directions, especially as Joy and Sadness make their way deeper into Riley’s mind. It has a lot in common with Monsters Inc, Docter’s first feature, in the way it establishes the denizens of Riley’s mind in full relief down to the working stiffs who punch the clock every day purging her memory banks of those faded ideas she no longer needs. The whole enterprise is undeniably and infectiously clever, from the interactions between the emotions to how they reflect themselves on Riley’s temperament. The whole thing is a metaphor for that sort of depressive malaise that can set in once adolescence arrives and innocence is lost, sadness almost for the sake of it. Joy sees such actions as counter-intuitive, with no understanding of why she can’t just be happy all the time, but sadness has its place in the world and its benefits too (as do Anger, Fear and Disgust), and real life is not so black and white.
Inside Out is not black and white either; it bursts forth from every frame with overwhelming color. Riley’s memories are represented by color-coded globes of light, whether it is the warm, golden glow of Joy or the icy blue hue of Sadness. It is such a vibrant world, and the establishing of its ebullience and movement in the first act plays perfectly into what happens when things begin to go wrong. As this lovely world drains of its color, Docter elicits an almost overwhelming sense of empathy from his audience, the sort of raw, biting emotion that is so difficult to face head on. And when that color and joy make their inevitable return in a moment of beauty and synergy, it feels all the more significant for where the film has been and how its use of color reinforced the underlying metaphor. This is among Pixar’s most sophisticated storytelling efforts (one that features no villain in the classic sense), and Docter, alongside co-screenwriters Meg LeFauve and Josh Cooley, as well as the legions of artists at work, have crafted a film that is up to the mammoth task of its conceit.
The only aspect of the film that does not entirely work is Bing Bong, the aforementioned imaginary friend who acts as Joy and Sadness’ guide to Long Term Memory during act two. This is certainly a case of Your Mileage May Vary, as the Bing Bong character is likely far more resonant to those who have similarly dormant memories of an imaginary childhood friend who is mostly elephant smashed together with a bunch of other animals and inexplicably dressed as a rail-rider from the 1930’s. Richard Kind’s performance is wonderful (as is everyone’s really), and the character’s climactic moments are powerfully emotional, but it did not quite work prior to that moment. Because of this, there are a few aspects of the second act that begin to lag ever so slightly (and understand, this is merely the difference between a great movie and an excellent movie, so feel free to consider it splitting hairs), only for its excellent third act to slam everything home in the perfect, tear-jerking way. It is no coincidence that the most daringly original Pixar film since Up is also its best film since Up. Pixar had worryingly seemed to lose the way, allowing the How to Train Your Dragons and the Laika films of the world to muscle in on its animation dominance. Competition is vital in every sphere, and the film world is no different, and Inside Out has once again proven that when the chips are down, Pixar will step up to the plate and come out swinging (insert other relevant sports metaphors here).