Directed by: Pete Docter and Ronaldo Del Carmen
Written by: Pete Docter, Josh Cooley and Meg LeFauve (screenplay), Pete Docter and Ronaldo Del Carmen (story)
Starring: Amy Poehler, Bill Hader, Phyllis Smith, Mindy Kaling, Lewis Black, Diane Lane, Kyle MacLachlan, Kaitlyn Dias
After a handful of recent theatrical releases ranging from mediocre to embarrassing, it seemed like people were almost ready to write off Pixar. The once mighty animation studio has been on a downward slide as of late, partially due to the number of questionable sequels being pumped out. While that’s not an entirely fair assessment (after all, Toy Story 3 remains one of their best films), it’s hard to deny the fact that something has been missing. But after taking a year off to regroup, I’m happy to report that Inside Out is a proper return to form, one that reminds us why Pixar was so beloved in the first place.
This is Pixar doing what they do best: introducing us to a new world full of clever rules and relationships that ultimately shed new light on our own world. The hook this time around is that part of the movie takes place inside the mind of a young girl where a group of colourful characters represent each of her emotions: joy, sadness, fear, anger and disgust. However, it goes deeper than that, exploring not only the way our emotions help us process things around us but also how they define who we are. Like the best Pixar movies, it works on multiple levels, and is clearly made for parents just as much as kids (if not more for the parents).
The story revolves around Riley, an average 11-year-old girl who lives in Minnesota with her mom and dad where she enjoys playing hockey. But when her dad gets a new job, their family is forced to relocate to San Francisco where Riley’s world is turned upside down. Inside her mind, a major crisis is set in motion after Sadness accidentally dislodges her core memories and gets lost with Joy, throwing Riley’s entire personality into upheaval. Together, Joy and Sadness must work together to find their way back to Emotion HQ and restore balance to her brain, helping Riley navigate the first bumps on the path to adulthood.
Over the years, Pixar has been known to dig deep for their voice casts, resisting the urge to cast A-list celebrities over slightly less famous voices that are a better fit. This time around there is a fair amount of star power as they bring together some big names from both The Office (Mindy Kaling and Phyllis Smith) and Saturday Night Live (Amy Poehler and Bill Hader) to anchor four of Riley’s five emotions, a move that also takes advantage of some pre-established chemistry. Lewis Black is also a great choice to play Anger (for obvious reasons) and Richard Kind arguably steals the show as Bing Bong, Riley’s long-lost imaginary friend. Meanwhile Diane Lane and Kyle MacLachlan play Riley’s down-to-earth parents, while newcomer Kaitlyn Dias plays Riley herself.
The trailers made it seem like the world inside Riley’s mind was nothing more than a control room where the emotions interact with one another, but there is actually much more to it than that. When Joy and Sadness find themselves accidentally ejected from HQ, they end up wandering through many different mental faculties such as long-term memory and dream production. At times it is reminiscent of Christopher Nolan’s Inception and the way that film’s mental rules have strong connections to real world phenomena, but there is plenty of playfulness and humour here as well.
Not only do all of these elements of the mind fit together in surprising and delightful ways, but their visual representations are unique and appropriately imaginative. This is one of the most interesting Pixar movies from a visual standpoint simply because they had a blank canvas to work with and the many talented artists at Pixar just went for it. The colourful and surreal landscape of Riley’s mind contrasts perfectly with the much more drab, mundane details of the real world.
All of this being said, it is the rich underlying themes that are the greatest strength of the film, which is unexpected for an animated movie. The movie deals with some big concepts, most of them abstract, and while parts of it may be too cerebral for kids to grasp, that doesn’t make it any less impressive. The revelation that sadness is a key part of the human experience is a subtle but poignant coda, one that is reinforced with a heartwarming finale. Pete Docter made us all a quivering mess with the melancholy opening moments of Up, but here he evokes a much more nuanced, complex emotional response.
Even if Inside Out is not quite a perfect film (some of the humour is painfully broad and obvious, for example), it is easily the best Pixar movie since Toy Story 3. That might not be saying much, but it should be more than enough to reaffirm your faith in this revered animation studio. It’s not very often that you see an animated movie that manages to say something profound about what it means to be human, and although it seems simple on the surface, Inside Out runs pretty deep. — Sean