Perhaps a two year break was just what they needed to get them back on track. So who better to do it than Pete Doctor? Hired in the company’s early days and having written the first two Toy Story films, he found himself shot to prominence after directing the smash hit Monsters, Inc. The rest is history, as the man later returned to direct Up, a film that brought critics and audiences both to tears and their feet, and which practically defined everything that made Pixar a spectacular filmmaking force. Six years later, he returns with the first of Pixar’s two big releases of 2015, Inside Out. For Doctor to not only bring Pixar back to their prime, but to best even his own career best effort was clearly no easy task… and yet by some miracle, that’s exactly what he did.
Taking place both inside and outside the mind of the 11 year old Riley (Kaitlin Dias), she finds her life and her emotional status challenged when she and her family move from Minnesota to San Francisco. Now facing a new school life and change in environment, the emotions that guide her mind begin to act erratically. Despite the best efforts of her most important emotion, Joy (Amy Poehler), to put a positive spin on things and lead the other emotions, including Sadness (Phyllis Smith), Anger (Lewis Black), Fear (Bill Hader), and Disgust (Mindy Kaling), Riley’s mind is left in utter chaos when Joy, Sadness, and special core memories that act as expansions to her personality are lost in long term memory, and it’s up to Joy to find her way back to headquarters to bring order back to Riley’s confused mind.
One thing that’s long set Pixar apart from most of its contemporary competitors is how the studio is able to craft films that speak both to children and adult audiences with equal intelligence and understanding. Aside from the more child-geared antics in the Cars films, they’ve wisely steered clear from pandering and condescension, allowing children to think and put pieces together for themselves in effective sub-text, and allowing adults to relive the experiences and questions that they themselves faced at that same age. In that regard, Inside Out is the studio’s most mature and high concept film they’ve produced to date, no doubt the result of Doctor continually evolving as a filmmaker, but still retains an innocent sense of childlike wonder.
Doctor is a director that leaves no stone unturned in his imagination, taking every advantage of the possibilities that the inner mind presents without sacrificing the movement of the story. The script by Doctor, as well as Josh Cooley and Meg LeFauve, is hysterically funny, taking relatable experiences of inexplicably catchy songs getting stuck in your head, dreams and nightmares acting as the equivalent of movies, and one’s own imagination acting as something like a theme park to maximum effect. Doctor takes all of these possibilities with an inventive and energetic spin, and with Doctor being an admitted fan of the Muppets, his influences from the timing and wordplay of the characters are unmistakable, right down to veteran Muppeteers Dave Goelz and Frank Oz themselves voicing humorous bit characters late in the film.
Doctor’s imagination stretches out even further to the visual side of the film. Finding Nemo and WALL-E production designer Ralph Eggleston approaches the various layers and levels of the mind with an unbridled creativity, from personality isles that define Riley’s character, to rows and rows of glowing orbs possessing all of Riley’s most cherished memories, to the lower levels of the subconscious where Riley’s most deep-rooted fears lie. Like most of Pixar’s very best films, the film also realizes that visual storytelling is just as vital to the experience as dialogue, including in one twisted and trippy sequence in Riley’s abstract thoughts chamber where characters change into various deconstructed shapes and colors.
Great characters are just as essential to the film as the story, something which Inside Out provides with flying colors. With Riley being treated as both a character and a setting, it not only provides a brilliant opportunity to flesh out the emotions in her head as their own characters, but creatively infuse the coming of age experiences children go through with a larger than life sense of adventure. Each emotion is exactly how you might picture them, and they honestly couldn’t be more perfectly cast. Amy Poehler’s Joy is a bright and energized ball of optimism and laughter consistently playing the moderating presence, Phyllis Smith as Sadness grounds the film with devastating reflection and deep poignancy, Lewis Black’s comedic style and aggression gives Anger some of the funniest moments of the film, and Mindy Kaling’s Disgust uses the actress’s tones to fittingly snobbish and sassy effect. The emotion I probably relate to most is Bill Hader’s hyperactive and easily shocked and frightened Fear, with his voice nailing the cowardly and over thinking attitude of the character, and whose antics liken him to an overly concerned parent. The most scene stealing performance, however, comes from Richard Kind as Riley’s imaginary friend Bingbong, a figure of undying loyalty and innocence in Riley’s mind whose desire to be remembered conveys a saddening yearning for the nostalgic past.
Ultimately, what makes Inside Out stand out in the crowd is the way that Doctor looks at all of the emotions, for while the characters may appear simplified, their actual characterization and interplay is anything but. Looking at the film through the eyes of a parent, Doctor creates a film that speaks both to children about to, or currently going through these tough changes in their life, and to the adults who know all too well what their children are experiencing. As times goes on, it’s become a misguided norm to suppress one’s emotions, but Doctor knows that it’s not that simple, and that they’re something to be embraced. No one emotion is more important than another, and each are meant to complement each other and not to act in opposition. It’s those tough times and meaningful connections that develop us into the people that we eventually become. It’s a very confusing concept for kids to grasp, but its times like that when kids should be confused. Change isn’t easy, or always the most pleasant feeling, but it’s often a necessary stepping stone in our lives, something that Doctor emphasizes to devastating yet hopeful effect.
This is all further punctuated by Michael Giacchino’s score, with the composer capping off a banner summer with incredibly creative and textured compositions. While it still doesn’t reach the heights Giacchino set for himself with his previous Up score, he clearly has a lot of fun with the experimentation and creative synthetic elements, but also weaves the various themes with such emotional resonance that the end result is simply fantastic, and unmistakably belonging to this film. Every other aspect of the film is icing on the cake for a perfect movie experience.
That’s really what Inside Out is, perfection. Not only does it restore Pixar to its position as the master of the animation medium, but honestly ranks among the greatest animated features I’ve ever seen, and I’m not even slightly joking about that. Seeing them both at their funniest, as well as their most emotionally impactful, the studio and Pete Doctor approach the material with graceful maturity, creating a film that once again speaks both to the young and young at heart, and treats its simplistic ideas with personal understanding and welcome complexity, pushing the boundaries for what animation and its artists can do. The film took me on an unforgettable journey, and I loved it from start to finish.
While I look forward to The Good Dinosaur coming out this Thanksgiving - in spite of its worrying production troubles - as far as I’m concerned, both the summer and the year in animation have peaked here. Bottom line, this is the best animated feature I’ve seen this decade so far.
***** / *****