Pixar’s emergence as the end-all-be-all of American feature animation was one of the biggest narratives of the last decade. Not only did Pixar manage to make huge commercial successes out of all their movies, but each of their movies was met with practically universal acclaim. But at some point during the trajectory -possibly influenced by parent company Walt Disney Pictures- the people at Pixar were seduced by the commercial possibilities of getting into the sequel business. In the five years, we’ve only seen the release of one original Pixar movie. The rest were sequels, and most of them were forgettable to say the least. So when people started to claim Inside Out to be a return-to-form for the once spotless studio, I received the news with equal amount of excitement and caution.
Turns out caution wasn’t necessary. Inside Out not only fits comfortably among the ranks of Pixar’s best, but it presents the best movie in director Pete Docter’s career. Docter worked mostly as a story guy at the studio before he got to direct Monsters, Inc. and later helmed the Oscar-winning Up. Well, he seems to have taken the emotional resonance of both those movies, and along with co-director Ronaldo del Carmen, created something quite amazing.
The movie centers on what goes inside the mind of an eleven year-old girl named Riley (voiced by Kaitlyn Dias). There, we meet the five emotions in charge of caring for and “piloting” Riley as if they were on the bridge of the USS Enterprise. They are Anger (Don Rickles), Disgust (Mindy Kaling), Fear (Bill Hader), Sadness (Phyllis Smith), and their leader, Joy (Amy Poehler). Their job is to do whatever they can to keep Riley happy, but through a series of coincidences, Joy and Sadness find themselves stranded in the long term memory part of Riley’s head, and must find their way back to headquarters.
But while Joy and Sadness are off on their typical Pixar-style adventure, we realize that this movie is something far more modest and thoughtful than its high concept premise would have you believe. At the end of the day, Inside Out is all about what goes on inside the mind of a young girl. About what makes her feel good, and what makes her feel bad. And about the insecurities and fears that come with aging into a preteen. Like Devin Faraci from Birth Movies Death points out, Inside Out “has the biggest stakes of any movie this year”, and it is all about keeping a young girl safe and happy.
For a long time, and especially at the height of Pixar’s creative and commercial run of successes, people were decrying the fact that all of the studio’s movies seemed to have male protagonists. The studio responded with the lackluster Brave, which positioned itself as a girl-power narrative, but ended up underwhelming thanks to an uninspiring script. Inside Out, however, seems to be the perfect response to those old plights. Not only is it centered almost exclusively around the well being of a girl, but its two protagonist emotions are also coded female.
In fact, the most remarkable thing about Inside Out is how it manages to seamlessly connect the “outside” narrative of Riley’s family moving from Minnesota to San Francisco, and the “inside” narrative of Joy and Sadness trying to get back to Headquarters, especially considering how much of an emotional impact the movie has in its last third. Above all, the movie stands out for pointing out the importance of allowing all of your emotions to have their time and place. By refusing to turn any of the emotions -or any character for that matter- into a villain, the movie highlights the fact that it’s ok to feel angry, or afraid, or sad. It’s all part of being alive, and it’s all part of being healthy. Not every movie has to be measured by its message, but I’ll be damned if I’m not completely on board on sending this message out to the eleven year-olds of the world, especially little girls.
And maybe it goes without saying, but beyond being emotional (you will probably cry a lot during this movie), Inside Out sports the type of cleverness that made Pixar so acclaimed in the first place. Not only that, but it is also a very funny movie. Some of the characters are one-dimensional (often by design), but that doesn’t keep the movie from (mostly) bending stereotypes and expectations and producing some very amusing bits.
As far as the voice cast is concerned, it is uniformly solid, with Amy Poehler and Phyllis Smith being particularly strong as Joy and Sadness respectively, and their relationship carrying out some of the movie’s best moments. And a special mention must be given to Richard Kind, who does a really good job of using line readings to turns a somewhat lame character into a strong piece of the ensemble, and much more than the metaphor it is supposed to represent.
If there is a weak spot to Inside Out, it’s probably the design and final rendering of the animation. Of Pixar’s features, this one ranks amongst the least visually appealing. Even though the character animation is as flawless as ever, the design elements are a little generic and not quite up to par with the movie’s intelligent screenplay.
All in all, Inside Out is an invaluable piece of filmmaking. It is smart, it is funny, and most importantly, it engages fully with its place as a story about children and growing up. It is truthful in a way that very few movies (especially Hollywood productions) ever dare to be. This is a movie that has actual value. A movie that will speak to children, and say something that will hopefully help them as they become adults.
And before I end this review, let me warn you that the short that plays before the movie -titled Lava– is quite atrocious. It’s not even worth it to go into details here, but I just wanted you to be warned. Don’t be discouraged by the lameness of the short, the movie that follows is quite fantastic.
Grade: 8 out of 10