By: Daniel Reynolds
We can admit the Pixar name has lost a bit of its lustre in the past five years. This is relatively speaking of course – all of their films over this period have made bundles of money and won some awards. Brave, their best film of this period, won the Oscar for Best Animated Film after all, which proved they still had something. (Even if it totally should have gone to Wreck-It Ralph.) But after an all-time untouchable run of classics (Ratatouille, WALL-E, Up, Toy Story 3), the spark of Pixar’s creativity has felt a bit dulled. Sequels have come more readily and the reviews haven’t been as dynamite. Roger Ebert said of Brave – again, their best film of the past five years – that it was “poaching on traditional territory of Disney.” Pixar has never felt like a traditional anything. They’ve always been the studio to push film–never mind the animated qualifier–into new places. So then, to know the idea behind Inside Out, Pixar’s latest, is to be reminded they’ve still got some magic in reserve.
Inside Out tells the story of a young girl named Riley (voiced by Kaitlyn Dias) from the literal start of her life. We meet her as she opens her eyes for the first time to gaze upon her parents. As this is the joyful spark of life in action, we also meet Joy, the brightly coloured Tinkerbell-like manifestation of emotion within Riley. Joy (voiced by Leslie Knope, err I mean, Amy Poehler) blissfully guides us through the first years of baby Riley’s life. We witness the simple wonder of memories being formed – emerging here as coloured orbs. We learn how core memories form Riley’s personality – grouped as mental islands (family, honesty, friendship, etc.) surrounded by a sea of other brain functions and memory storage. This is quintessential Pixar – a monumental and deeply mysterious process distilled into simple scenes of colour, action and swift exposition. We meet the rest of Riley’s emotions as she ages to 11 years old and has need for them: Disgust (Mindy Kaling), Fear (Bill Hader), Anger (Lewis Black) and Sadness (Phyllis Smith). Each has their part to play in the emotional growth of Riley as she interacts with the world. Everything inside Riley works well together until it doesn’t and, through a slapstick turn of events, Joy and Sadness are expelled into the outer reaches of the girl’s mind.
As a setting, this is Pixar’s most imaginative but also, surprisingly, its most geographically limited. While in the external world Riley is in a stressful move to the west coast from Minnesota, the crew of emotions are never far from brain headquarters. Even after Joy and Sadness are launched into the warrens of the mind we never quite stray far from this central space. The film has fun, however, finding ways to visualize various nearby aspects in the head of Riley (and others); there are trains of thought, a dungeon of the subconscious, and a Hollywood-esque studio managing dreams. Joy and Sadness are aided by Riley’s old imaginary friend named Bing Bong (voiced expertly by Richard Kind), while the rest of the emotions are terrorized by a great recurring gag involving the memory of an annoying gum commercial jingle. This is the stuff that sets Pixar apart, these special ideas never quite seen before in a film of this scale. Meanwhile, rather than poach another princess angle from Disney, Riley is characterized as an every-girl with a fitting interest in hockey (she is from the north after all). This is treated as the most normal thing in the world. It’s a small touch but in its unassuming way, revolutionary. Then again, maybe hockey was used because like Riley, the film’s director Pete Docter is from Minnesota too.
Inside Out is Docter’s third time as lead director for Pixar. Along with his story/writing credits on a handful of other films (including the original Toy Story), he brought the vast Monsters Inc. to life and floated the breathtakingly moving Up towards its sterling emotional clarity. This is already quite the resume. It feels like Docter is working with a smaller palette here; the colours are primary, the visual splendour toned down. But he has an effortless understanding of set pieces, and a creative streak that finds a clever place for all the odds and ends of his script (co-written with Meg LeFauve and Josh Cooley). Docter also wisely allows his voice cast their chances to shine. Poehler’s Joy is as spry as expected, Black does Anger in his sleep, Kaling and Hader likewise play off their existing humorous personas. For her part, Smith, the least known of the five (most would know her as Phyllis from The Office), is a revelation. Her Sadness mopes and whines, and at first almost appears as the inadvertent villain of the film. Instead, with Smith’s help, Sadness evolves beyond a punchline to become the stand-out and integral character of the movie.
This speaks to what Docter, and by extension Pixar, truly excels at. Inside Out, as with their best films, may use bright primary colours but it’s painted using complex brush strokes. Elements of darkness are allowed in; there is joy and sadness in equal measure, in other words. There actually is no real villain in Inside Out except for the ineffable and painful passage of time. For what is growing up – what is life, really – without the acknowledgement of sadness’ role within it. The brightly coloured baubles of Inside Out represent memories formed, stored, discarded. They’re individually tinged with the colours of the emotion that shaped them. What the film ultimately achieves then is a thoughtful blend; it’s the pain and pleasure of nostalgia, the familiar embrace of the forgotten, and the knowing smile at what is to come. Even with caveats, this is Pixar back on top.