When the Pixar team is firing on all cylinders, the resulting films are state-of-the-art and revolutionary, both in terms of the visual immersion and the emotional experience. A great Pixar film is a masterpiece of complexity, using the boundless possibilities of both animated filmmaking and fantasy storytelling to tap directly into the hearts and minds of audiences of any age. Our hopes and fears and dreams and passions can be channeled in a great Pixar film, and such remarkable success felt like standard operating procedure for the studio in its first decade-plus. In recent years, Pixar has fallen prey to sequelitis and the well of original ideas that was the company’s lifeblood seemed to be drying out. But whether the creative juices are in shorter supply or just being guarded in a reserve tank, along comes Inside Out to remind us that they are still flowing strong.
For the first time since Up, which released over six years ago, it feels as though Pixar is working at its full potential, telling a story that is wholly original and that uses the fantastical animated world to tap directly into our own reality. For Inside Out, fantasy informs reality, cartoons reveal our humanity. Maybe it shouldn’t be surprising that it would take six years to develop something so very special. Similarly, it shouldn’t be surprising that this film comes from Pete Docter, who is also responsible for Up. For all the accolades we tend to bestow on Pixar as a whole, it’s the people who make the machine work, and Docter has proven himself as a master operator.
Inside Out dares to probe the human mind – literally. Five primary emotions that rule the brain take center stage in an adventure with the grandest stakes: maintaining the emotional well-being of a child in transition. Joy (voiced by Amy Poehler) has ruled the roost for the first decade of young Riley’s (voiced by Kaitlyn Dias) life, but as the young girl is uprooted when her family moves from Minnesota to San Francisco, the other emotions begin to make their stand. Fear (voiced by Bill Hader), Anger (voiced by Lewis Black), and Disgust (voiced by Mindy Kaling) each find themselves flexing for dominance within Riley’s delicate young psyche, but it’s Sadness (voiced by Phyllis Smith) who starts to take the reins, almost unwittingly. In a fascinating narrative twist that reflects the film’s title intentionally or not, these disparate emotions share responsibility for running Riley’s brain but do not seem to be able to control themselves.
Thought patterns and brain structure are creatively presented as if the film is also a behind-the-scenes expose’ of the human mind. The emotions take turns running a control panel for moment-to-moment emotions. The brain centers live on a series of emotional “islands” that facilitate mood. Memories are formed in orbs tinted with the specific emotional color and housed in vast repositories – the “Core Memories” are front and center, coursing through the brain on a regular basis, whereas others are archived with the potential to be discarded (e.g., forgotten). When Sadness touches a joyous “Core” memory, its color is tainted and the equilibrium is thrown off, prompting Joy to embark on a mission to restore sanity, so to speak. Along the way, we discover imaginary friends, subconscious secrets, and buried memories that define who Riley is – and eventually we realize “Riley” is just a stand-in for us.
Inside Out is a blast from the very beginning, with boisterous creativity and outsized humor. Its brilliance, however, is the way this screenplay – by Docter, Meg LeFauve, and Josh Cooley – slowly reveals itself as a meditation on the evolving mind. Our memories and emotions shift over time. We are different people at 12 than we are 23, 41, or 70. Different emotions command the control panel and eventually our memories aren’t so emotionally clean. The picture is muddied, which gives birth to those quirkier human states like melancholy or bittersweet. As time passes, our brain recalibrates itself and those ideas we once thought to be simple and easy begin to shift. Our “islands” break down and rebuild. All we can do is brace for the ride.
And what a ride Inside Out is.