Ever since Pixar exploded onto the scene with their game-changing animated behemoth, Toy Story, there’s one thing they have never strayed from — their integrity. It doesn’t matter whether or not audiences are blown away by their stories or are indifferent to them, John Lasseter and his team will defend their product without a second thought. The best example of this integrity was in their decision to delay The Good Dinosaur because they knew it wasn’t ready. Instead of releasing an inferior product, one they couldn’t get fully behind, they pulled it from its release date even though it caused some pundits to claim that Pixar’s magic was starting to fizzle. I’d much rather they take their time and be extremely happy with the final product than to have them shove something into the marketplace simply because that was the plan. It’s because of this integrity (as well as not shying away from the darker, more adult themes that leave grown men crying) that has kept them creatively astute. No matter what you may have thought of something like Cars 2, you can always rest assured there will always be a film like Inside Out just waiting in the wings to prove why Pixar continues to be the reigning champ for high quality entertainment that doesn’t condescend to its audience.
Having grown up in the nineties and being a fan of Herman’s Head (and I’m sure there are other examples), the idea of going inside a character’s head to see what they’re thinking is far from original. However, the way directors Pete Doctor and Ronaldo Del Carmen deal with the topic is tremendously unique, exciting and heartbreaking. It all begins with the way they depict how our brains work. There’s a central control tower where all memories are created (compressed into little glass spheres highlighted in the color of the emotion they’re most affected by) and stored until you fall asleep, at which point the memories are transported to long-term memory — a plateau of shelves that house every memory ever created, except that is, for those memories that have faded and are sent to the wasteland of the forgotten. If the memory is adversely affected, it transforms into a core memory, which are then inserted into a storage wheel that forms pathways to little islands just outside the main tower to make up your personality. And that’s just the beginning of dozens of inventive ideas.
Running the control tower, of course, are your five main emotions: Joy (Amy Poehler), a yellow sprite that tries to keep everything as upbeat as possible; Sadness (Phyllis Smith), a bit of a downer, blue and completely unsure of her place as an emotion; Fear (Bill Hader), a scraggly purple scaredy-cat; Anger (Lewis Black), a red pillow person who fumes with flames when he gets extremely upset; and Disgust (Mindy Kaling), a condescending green teenager. Together they control young Riley, an eleven year-old hockey nut whose parents (Diane Lane and Kyle MacLachlin) have had to uproot her from her life in Minnesota because of her father’s new job in San Francisco. Joy tries to keep Riley smiling and playful, even as things seem to be falling apart at every turn. Her father spends more time at the job than at home, the moving truck continues to delay their arrival, leaving Riley to sleep in a sleeping bag on the floor, and she ends up breaking down during her first day of school when Sadness accidentally changes one of her joyous emotions sad. The scene is only the first hit to the heartstrings in a film that explores to great effect the challenges that come with moving to a new city and starting over.
The concept of dealing with these emotions manifests itself when Joy tries to stop Sadness from turning one of the core memories blue, leading them both to be sucked from the control tower and sent to long-term memory. As they try desperately to get back, it’s up to Anger, Fear and Disgust to navigate this trying time in Riley’s life, inadvertently making things worse by causing Riley to become standoffish, indignant and reserved, which itself begins to cause the islands of her personality to crumble and fade into the wasteland. With Joy at the helm, Riley is trying to be brave and put on a happy face, when in reality, she’s scared and alone, but can’t convey those emotions due to Joy’s persistence. Without Joy or Sadness to help guide her, she shuts down. Most of us can relate to this coming-of-age story in some way or another, and the film is not afraid to test the waters by allowing Riley to make a very frightening decision. When Joy finally figures out why Sadness is turning all of the memories she touches blue, the effects of her realization are some of Pixar’s best work. Basically, if you aren’t crying by the end of the film, Sadness must have fallen into the wasteland of forgetfulness.
As is usual for a Pixar movie, the animation is astounding, right down to the fuzz that covers Joy and her companions, and they continue to play my favorite game, “Find John Ratzenberger” (the only voice actor to have appeared in some form or another in all of Pixar’s films). Along with a fun, goofy odd-ball (but yet extremely sentimental) imaginary friend named Bing-Bong, voiced by Richard Kind (who ends up helping Joy and Sadness find their way back to the tower), there some nice diversions into the heads of some of the other character’s to show how similar, yet different, they are from one another (and it’s great to see who’s in charge of the control board). But as a fan of movies, and as a filmmaker, the most exciting and fun part of the film is seeing the way they depict how dreams are created (or filmed), and how and why we react to some dreams in different ways. It’s one of the most creatively fun aspects of a maddeningly creative film.
I can’t say Inside Out is the funniest of the Pixar films (lacking in as many quotable lines as Toy Story and Finding Nemo), but after a two year hiatus in their release schedule, Inside Out is an emotionally unique (near) masterpiece that I will be surprised if it doesn’t end up in my top ten movies of 2015.
My Grade: A
Next week, new movies include Max and Ted 2. If you would like to see a review of one of these, or any other film out next week, please respond in the comments below.