According to the trailers that played before my screening of Inside Out (and also this, which you now all get to watch because you must suffer as I have) three factors are crucial for success in the realm of children’s entertainment:
- High-pitched, squeaky voices
- Music that’s at least a decade out of date
Thankfully, the movie we’re talking about today has none of those things.
Pixar has been having a bit of a rough time lately. A few short years ago they were the undisputed masters of western animation, but a string of disappointments, an over-reliance on sequels and a sudden resurgence from Disney led to movie critics sharpening their “Pixar Is Over” think-pieces.
That might still end up happening- their next movie went through significant development turmoil and they’re apparently moving forward with the ludicrous idea of making a fourth Toy Story movie (THE END OF TOY STORY 3 WAS PERFECT DON’T YOU DARE)- but at the very least they managed to hit one more home run before taking a bow. Inside Out is both their best movie and a towering achievement in animation, a near-flawless masterpiece that’s hysterically funny as well as deeply, heart-achingly emotional.
The movie focuses on Riley, an 11-year old girl who has a colourful cast of personified emotions living in her head. Joy runs the show, directing the other emotions and contributing to the creation of the “core memories” that make up Riley’s personality, taking particular pride in the fact that every core memory is a happy one. Things start to change when Riley and her parents up sticks and move from Minnesota to San Francisco: a particularly bad first day leaves Joy struggling harder and harder to keep Riley’s spirits up, a task that isn’t made any easier by the fact that Sadness- who Joy has always tried as hard as possible to shunt to the sidelines- has suddenly developed a compulsion to “infect” Riley’s memories, turning happy moments from her past sad.
Things go from bad to worse when an accident results in Joy and Sadness becoming stranded in the far-flung reaches of Riley’s mind and leaving Fear, Anger and Disgust to run things (badly) in their absence. Joy and Sadness have to scramble to get back to headquarters and fix things while answering a question that’s been lingering over Riley’s internal world ever since her birth: what role is Sadness supposed to play in her life?
Pixar’s “thing” seems to be taking stories that in lesser hands would be trite fables espousing well-worn moral lessons and diverting them into realms that feel revelatory and even a bit subversive. Up could easily have been yet another story bout following your dreams, but instead ended up being a cautionary tale about the negative consequences of following your dreams too obsessively. Ratatouille feels like it’s going to be a story about how anyone can achieve anything as long as they believe in themselves and work hard, but its ultimate point is the more nuanced idea that a person’s origins don’t determine their potential.
Inside Out is a lot more up-front about its thematic depth, in that the “twist” that Joy’s relentless turn-that-frown-upside-down attitude is actually the cause of everything that’s going wrong is telegraphed fairly early on. This requires the movie to play a delicate balancing act: Joy is basically the closest thing the story has to a villain due to how poorly she treats Sadness and the fact that she literally won’t let Riley be unhappy, but we still have to sympathise with her until she realises what’s going on. With this in mind, the decision to have the story take place inside the mind of a child was a smart one, as Joy’s wrong-headedness comes from ignorance rather than malice. Riley simply hasn’t had enough sadness in her life to give Joy and the other emotions experience in processing it, and when that situation suddenly comes up they’re completely unprepared for it.
“Sadness is good sometimes” is an overly reductive summation of Inside Out, even if it does handle that idea with great nuance*. This movie is about a lot of things- growing up, letting go, empathy and how we learn to relate to other people- that could each have fueled an entire movie; that we instead got all of them in one movie, balanced and tied together with perfect thematic cohesion, is a minor miracle.
*(Prior to the movie’s release Pete Docter made some alarming statements that seemed to be equating sadness as examined by the movie with depression, and cast taking medication in a negative light. If those are his opinions, they thankfully don’t show up here)
Inside Out spends a lot of time examining sadness as an emotion, but it also contains Sadness the character, and I now desperately want some sort of plushy of her. Like Joy, it would have been very easy to turn the audience against her since she plays the role of the relentless killjoy for most of the film and appears at first to be the one who causes all of the mayhem that the other characters have to fix, but she’s just so god damn endearing that none of that matters. Her pudgy tear-drop character design combined with Phyllis Smith’s delivery (this is seriously one of the best voice acting performances I’ve ever heard) makes you want to pick her up and squeeze her, and she’s got an undercurrent of snarkiness and sarcasm that leads to some of the movie’s biggest laughs.
Speaking of which: this is a seriously funny movie. I don’t think I’ve laughed so hard in a cinema in years. There’s some physical slap-stick sprinkled throughout for the young ‘uns, mostly involving Fear (probably the weakest character in the movie), but a lot of the humour is sharper and more sophisticated than the jokes you tend to see in adult comedies. Make sure you stay for the credits, as there’s an extended sequence that contains some of the best scenes in the whole movie.
(Ignore the trailers, by the way. The somewhat cringe-inducing Men Are From Mars/Women Are From Venus tone that the marketing leaned on is only present in one scene and isn’t as stupid in context)
Pixar movies have a deserved reputation for tugging on the heart-strings with brutal efficiency- I still can’t even read plot descriptions of Toy Story 3 without getting choked up. Inside Out has even that movie beat. During my screening a single line of dialogue caused the entire cinema to instantly break down sobbing, and that’s not even the worst part. Bring tissues. Bring lots and lots of tissues. You’re going to need them.
The emotional gut-punches are just part of what makes this Pixar’s most mature movie. It also frequently ditches the candy-coloured child-friendly environs of Riley’s mental control center for some striking and subtle imagery, filling the screen with stark, minimalist landscapes and achingly gorgeous uses of colour. It’s the sort of thing that reminds you why the act of watching a movie on a big screen is still relevant and valuable in the modern era.
If the movie has one flaw- and this is literally its only real flaw- it’s that it tries to pack just a bit too much into its modest running time. There are so many clever spins on psychological concepts and ideas (my favourite being boxes of facts and opinions, which Joy knocks over and then can’t clean up because they look so similar) and the characters are such a pleasure to watch that I sometimes wanted the movie to slow down a bit and give itself time to breathe. The positive side of this is that it never sags for even a second; every single moment fires on all cylinders.
I don’t know if Pixar is going to continue this momentum going forward- their upcoming slate after The Good Dinsosaur is a raft of sequels- but if Inside Out is the swan song of their glory days, then it’s a hell of a way to go out.