There are people who will tell you that Pixar's latest animated wonder Inside Out is not one of the year's best films.
These people make me sad. Very sad.
After a couple films in a row that weren't particularly good, at least not by Pixar's standards, Pixar bounces back to the forefront of contemporary animated features with Inside Out, a tender and touching and insightfully funny film that had me laughing out loud, quietly shedding tears, being touched deeply, and absolutely loving this inventive film that seems like it should fail miserably yet works masterfully.
The film takes place for the most part inside the consciousness of 11-year-old Riley, a delightful little girl with delightful parents growing up in a delightful little town in Minnesota.
What could go wrong?
The delightful world of Riley begins to take a wrong turn when her family packs up and heads for the far busier, seemingly less idyllic big city of San Francisco so that Riley's father can chase a big business deal. We experience Riley's world primarily through five central emotions that sit at the "headquarters" inside her brain - There's the vibrant and energetic Joy (Amy Poehler), the melancholy and infinitely morose Sadness (Phyllis Smith), the jittery Fear (Bill Hader), the dismissive Disgust (Mindy Kaling), and the fire-headed Anger (Lewis Black). These five emotions guide Riley's daily existence, though it's apparent from early on that Joy has been the guiding emotion for much of Riley's up to now happy childhood. Still, the emotions peacefully co-exist and for the most part work cooperatively while often deferring to Joy's overwhelming desire for Riley to be happy as much as happy while storing up her daily collection of orb-like memories that are color coded according to the emotion that created them. In addition to these ordinary daily memories, Joy is particularly obsessed with what is called "Core Memories," those memories that are created that ultimately help Riley become who she is to be. These, in turn, help to create "islands" that serve, in essence, as an oasis of safety for Riley should hard times come or the need arise - for Riley, these islands include such things as family, friendship, hockey, and "goofball."
I admit it. "Goofball" was my favorite.
If this all sounds really complicated, rest assured that director Pete Docter has worked hard, yet made it look simple, to create all of this in a way that both parent and child can understand it and, in all likelihood, discuss it on the way home from the movie theater.
Yeah, it's that type of film. It's the type of film that Pixar used to make until they got districated by Cars 31 and other recent cinematic efforts that weren't necessarily awful but they simply weren't up to Pixar's usual standards that had seemed unbendable for so long.
While I wouldn't dare call Inside Out Pixar's best film, it is precisely the film I was hoping for on a Thursday night jaunt to the movie theater after a long work week and an draining combination of both mental and physical exhaustion.
I wanted sweet. I wanted funny. I wanted emotional. I wanted escape.
As someone who loved the short-lived television series Herman's Head, it's rather exciting to see someone as talented as Docter take such an idea, transplant it into the world of an 11-year-old girl, and turn it into such an insightful, emotionally resonant, and authentic film. The film finds its emotional core when Riley begins having trouble adjusting to life in San Francisco. She has a home that doesn't feel like a home, a brand new school without any friends, distracted parents trying to make a business thrive, and all the emotional insecurities and complexities of what it means to be an 11-year-old girl. Suddenly, the girl who has always experienced more Joy than anything is drowning in overwhelming sadness and anger and fear and even a little disgust. The beauty of the film is that it doesn't condescend or even remotely try to pretend that this isn't an incredibly real, incredibly legit emotional and physical journey for Riley. As her emotions begin to run amok, Phyllis Smith's Sadness takes center stage despite every effort in the world by Joy to take back the reins.
Inside Out draws all of this out through a journey that begins when Joy and Sadness are simultaneously sucked into the tube into which all memories are placed and subsequently dropped into the almost lost world of long-term memories. While this is in some ways played for laughs, Inside Out also poignantly yet gently portrays what Riley's life is like without Joy and Sadness in their designated place in headquarters. They try, feverishly, to return aided by an unexpectedly goofy character named Bing Bong (Richard Kind), whose role in Riley's life will be revealed and whose presence sweetly points to those distant childhood memories that linger yet inevitably go away.
There is something magical that happens as all of this unfolds in Inside Out. I heard it being received in the conversations of parents and children as we left the theater - children actually "getting" that joy is awesome, but sadness and anger and fear and disgust are all valuable parts of our human experience and they all sort of need each other. It's awesome watching this lesson unfold and, yeah, it's a little obvious at times but it's still portrayed honestly and sweetly with equal amounts of laughter and tears and wonder.
The vocal work in Inside Out is uniformly strong, though Phyllis Smith's Sadness brings the most joy with her sort of droll melancholy that is endearing and almost Eeyore-like at times. If you haven't fallen in love with Sadness by the end of the film, you're probably listening to Pharrell's "Happy."
Inside Out's animation is fluid and vibrant, at times fantasy like yet not overwhelming. It's emotionally grounded and filled with distinctive touches for each land that is visited. Michael Giacchino's score helps to immerse you fully into Riley's world, while the film's intelligent and sensitive dialogue feels genuine and natural.
While Pixar hasn't exactly been devoid of critical or box-office success during this period that many would consider a "slump," there's no question that Inside Out is a return to form for John Lasseter, Pete Docter, and all the folks at Pixar. Finally breaking out of what felt like an oft-repeating storyline, Pixar has created what will unquestionably be one of the year's best films and best animated films.
Written by Richard Propes
The Independent Critic