Inside Out (opening today) is the 15th full-length animated film to come from the now legendary Pixar Animation Studios. It’s been quite a while since the brand has lived up to the hype, created by its revolutionary first-film, Toy Story, back in 1995. While always a success at the box-office, Pixar’s last three feature-length entries – Cars 2, Brave and Monsters University – were mostly thought of as “lesser” Pixar films…with 2012’s Brave being its only original story. Before Brave, you’d have to go back to 2009’s Up, a film directed by Pete Docter (and co-directed by Bob Peterson) to find the last original plot, so there has been rumor and panic in recent years that Pixar had lost it’s magic touch over the years for ground-breaking original stories.
Maybe the magic touch was not the studio, per se, but the man behind the scenes calling the shots. For Inside Out, the reigns were given back to director Pete Docter, and in his hands, he has created another “great,” “classic” film to add to the Pixar canon, a film that is as deep and as layered as its…emotional…subjects. It also happens to be one of the best films so far in 2015, animated or otherwise.
Fans of the EPCOT attraction at Walt Disney World will instantly recognize the premise on Inside Out, since it existed at an attraction in the “Wonders of Life” pavilion called “Cranium Command.” The attraction (which was closed down in 2007, but still is structurally there) brought visitors inside the mind – literally – of a teenage boy. You would sit in a small auditorium and you could see, from the inside-out, all of the things going on in his body. Famous (at the time, anyways) actors represented different emotions and feelings. You had the logical Left Brain (Charles Grodin), the laid-back Right Brain (Jon Lovitz) and others like Stomach (George Wendt) and Adrenaline (the hyper Bobcat Goldthwait), and you could watch the comedy ensue, as all of the different parts reacted to things the boy would encounter in his life. If you are familiar with this now defunct attraction, you can’t help but think that the movie, Inside Out, isn’t original at all, but was created for the sole reason of possibly re-purposing the “Cranium Command” ride with this newer entity. That is the Disney way (see “Mr. Toad’s Wild Ride” or Norway’s “Maelstrom” ride that is currently being re-purposed as a Frozen ride).
But if Disney had ulterior motives, at least they went all in and crafted a real winner. Inside Out is more in the vein of other Pixar gems like Toy Story 3, Up, or WALL-E, a multi-layered film that slyly addresses adult themes, while veiling itself in the guise of a children’s adventure.
Instead of a boy, like in “Cranium Command,” Inside Out takes place mostly in the mind of a young girl, Riley (which, if you think about it, is probably the more fascinating and unpredictable location to find ourselves in of the two). In the world that Docter creates, all living things’ minds are made up of tiny creatures, each representing a particular emotion and each incapable of feeling any other. There is Joy (voiced by Amy Poehler), Sadness (The Office‘s Phyllis Smith), Fear (Bill Hader), Disgust (Mindy Kaling), and Anger (Lewis Black…who else?). As Riley moves through life, one of these emotions is imprinted on incoming memories, represented by different colored orbs that enter the system. Some of these orbs become “core memories,” or memories that truly become a part of who you are. These core memories actually form “islands” that make up who you are: Family, Honesty, Goofiness, and Hockey, happen to be among Riley’s islands.
As life happens before our eyes, these memories are collected and organized in the great halls of “long-term memory.” At different times in Riley’s life, the different emotions take over at the literal control panel of Riley’s mind. Being a child, Joy seems to be the current “leader” in the clubhouse and the other emotions tend to adhere to her guidance.
But when Riley moves away from her friends and hometown in Minnesota for San Francisco, it puts a real strain on her. Her parents (voiced by Diane Lane and Kyle MacLachlan) are dealing with adult problems of their own.
The imagination and thought that went into the framework and the world that makes up Inside Out is truly admirable. How it all works, at first, is super-simple and basic but as a person gets older – as in real life – feelings and emotions become more complex. Memories that were once joyous can become sad memories. Core memories can be replaced or altered. Many memories are lost or destroyed altogether, in a vast wasteland of the mind. Our characters find that their vessel isn’t as easy to control as it may have once been.
Smartly, covertly, the film also suggests that all of these emotions are needed to truly function as a human being. Sadness, in fact, is a key component to happiness. Who would have thunk it.
There are so many clever observations – like when we get to glimpse into the mind of the mother or the father, or how tiny maintenance workers get rid of certain memories…or how these workers like to mess with the emotions by sending up random memories on occasion just for a laugh (a running gag in the film is how a jingle for “Triple-Dent” Gum keeps popping up in Riley’s consciousness). There are explanations for many things that are commonplace for all of us: Why we forget things, why we can go into emotional funks, what happens to imaginary friends (Riley’s imaginary friend, Bing Bong, has a role to play in the story). A very humorous end-credit sequence puts us into the mind of a school teacher, a teenage rebel, a dog, a cat. For as much fun as we have in the mind of Riley, the film’s best moments take place when we get to glimpse into the mind of others, showing us the endless possibilities for future endeavors within the franchise, should they want to go that route.
Pixar has always excelled – hell, has made a trademark – of imagining how minute worlds and eco-systems might function (see Toy Story, A Bugs Life, Cars, Monsters Inc., etc). Inside Out doesn’t disappoint in the imagination department.
Where it might falter though, is at the box office. I’m sure its destined to be a hit, but it has a WALL-E-esque cloud hanging over it. For as much fun as the film is, there is a weight to it, an emotional depth rarely found in films not released by Pixar. Much will fly far over the heads of young children, but much will also land squarely between the ears of adults, who will leave pondering the very machinations of their own minds, wondering which functioning islands they might still have in the depths of their minds, or picturing which of their emotions are seated at the control panel. Early, positive word-of-mouth will hopefully help make this film remain relevant all the way through awards season.
There is some deep stuff going on here, done brilliantly and made accessible enough for audience members of all ages. Inside Out, to me, was Pixar’s best film since Up, and one that should definitely be mentioned in confidence when discussing the best films that Pixar has ever offered up.
Genre: Animation, Comedy, Drama
Run Time: 1 hour, 34 minutes, Rated PG
Starring (voices of): Amy Poehler, Phyllis Smith, Richard Kind, Bill Hader, Lewis Black, Mindy Kaling, Kaitlyn Dias, Diane Lane, Kyle MacLachlan, Paula Poundstone, Bobby Moynihan, Frank Oz
Written by Pete Docter, Meg LeFauve, Josh Cooley
Directed by Pete Docter (Monsters Inc., Up) & Ronaldo Del Carmen (feature-film debut)
Opens locally on Friday, June 19, 2015 (check for show times).