Welcome back Pixar, oh how we’ve missed you. After the animation studio’s weakest three years to date, its latest film, “Inside Out,” is a return to classic form. A smart and healthy mix of kid and adult family humor (perhaps containing one of the best “Chinatown” references I’ve ever seen in a comedy) make it a fun animated ride, but it is the complex and mature themes of the movie that make it fit nicely alongside other Pixar classics like “Up,” “WALL-E” and the “Toy Story” franchise.
After moving from Minnesota to San Francisco, 11-year old Riley struggles to adjust as her emotions – personified as Joy (Amy Poehler), Sadness (Phyllis Smith), Fear (Bill Hader), Anger (Lewis Black) and Disgust (Mindy Kaling) – debate over how best to handle their new surroundings. Things only get more complicated when Joy and Sadness get lost in Riley’s long-term memory.
Like a number of Pixar film’s before it, “Inside Out” uses the tenuous road-trip concept between two opposite characters, this time literally opposite ends of the emotional spectrum. It’s a proven formula for the studio that worked so well in “Toy Story,” “Finding Nemo,” “Up” and to a lesser extent “Brave.” The setting of “Inside Out” perhaps leads to some of the most original stuff Pixar has ever done, however, including one incredible sequence that sees Joy, Sadness and Riley’s forgotten imaginary friend Bing Bong (Richard Kind) travel through abstract thought.
But it’s that trademark Pixar heart that really makes “Inside Out” a winner. While the film lulls you in with its bright colors and adorable characters, deep down it is about the complexity of emotions. The macguffin of “Inside Out” are these core memories from Riley’s life that have shaped her personality. They are all joyful ones when the film starts. After the move though, Riley’s first day of school creates a sad core memory. Joy, the leader of the other emotions, doesn’t like this, as she wants Riley only to be happy. But Joy learns that Riley’s memories are mixed; happy memories can come from sad ones, fear to disgust, sadness to anger. To be you’re best self you need to be able to access all of your emotions.
The film does a great job providing a visual answer to this as well. During a pivotal dinner scene, we get a look inside the minds of Riley’s parents as well. There’s a big difference between how the minds of Mom and Dad are run compared to Riley’s. Riley’s emotions are more individualized, each wanting to push they’re own agenda. The emotions of her parents, however, work as a fully functional team.
This is heavy stuff about growing up and understanding emotions. Never mind that this is an animated film, there are some dramas that don’t handle this kind of material with the depth and respect that “Inside Out” does. It’s cool that they can have all these ideas and make them work so perfectly and then have a character in Bing Bong, who looks like an elephant, is made mostly of cotton candy and cries candy.
Of course we maybe shouldn’t be surprised when the film was handled by one of Pixar’s best, Pete Docter. With past Pixar films “Monster’s Inc.” and “Up” on his resume, Docter shares co-director duties this time around with Ronaldo Del Carmen, his first feature length directorial credit. Pixar has a stable of great talent behind the camera, and with a veteran who is now three-for-three and a promising new comer, they prove it once again.
Pixar is also fantastic about getting stellar voice casts. The actors voicing the five emotions are all fantastic, but the MVPs of the film are Poehler, Smith and Kind. The film centers on Joy and Sadness, so it’s no surprise that they get a lot of great opportunities, but the energetic nature of Poehler juxtaposed by the drab attitude Smith gives her character creates many great moments. Then Kind makes what could have easily been an annoying and tiresome character in Bing Bong a lot of fun to watch, and ends up creating one of the most touching character deaths in Pixar history.
Speaking of history, where does “Inside Out” rank amongst the other Pixar classics? Well to start off, it certainly belongs in the top tier. It might at times run to silly for some people’s tastes, but it has a lot to say and accomplishes it splendidly. Picking a favorite Pixar movie is a daunting task, so we’ll need a little more time to appropriately figure out where “Inside Out” falls in the pecking order.
“Inside Out” is everything you want in an animated film. Funny and accessible for the kids, but with a good stock of material to keep the adults entertained as well. It’s a fantastic reassurance that Pixar hasn’t lost its touch after uninspired sequels and a few troubled productions – they’re still the cream of the crop.