The speed and immediacy of access we all enjoy courtesy of the Internet tends to breed knee-jerk thoughtlessness. As a result, we live in a non-complex world where a single strike against an established entity in the entertainment industry – a movie, a television show, a celebrity – is enough to declare it substantially bankrupt. Years ago, Pixar earned its first strike with Cars, a minor offense at the time that gave way to greater concerns as the beloved animation giant began outputting creative stumbles while growing more reliant on cannibalizing its proven successes through sequelization. Cars begat Cars 2 while Monsters, Inc. begat Monsters University, and web-dwelling doomsayers begat “sky is falling” thinkpieces.
Pixar’s latest film, Inside Out, will probably make all erstwhile scaremongers feel abashed, chastened, and possibly even very, very silly. Everything regular moviegoers and dedicated cinephiles prize about Pixar is alive on both the page and the screen here; imagination and creativity, soul, humor, warmth, and emotionally-rooted stakes. That coterie of qualities combined with Pixar’s post-2010 dry spell may foster equally knee-jerk effusion from a viewing audience that’s been deprived of the studio’s trademark magic for too long. Then again, Inside Out could really just be that good. (Translation: It is just that good.)
Inside Out will feel like a more or less personal experience depending on where you sit in relation to Riley (Kaitlyn Dias), its eleven-year-old protagonist. We meet Riley at the start of the picture and see her grow up in brief in a sequence narrated by Joy (Amy Poehler), the exhaustively perky captain of Riley’s brain-ship. She’s Riley’s guiding emotion, and leader to a crew consisting of four additional basic emotions: Anger (Lewis Black), Fear (Bill Hader), Disgust (Mindy Kaling), and Sadness (Phyllis Smith). (The number five here feels like a playful, compromising nod to both conventional wisdom and the University of Glasgow.) They’re each exactly what you expect them to be, if not for their overt naming conventions then for the film’s casting choices. (Black was born to play Anger.)
Life is all peaches and cream for Riley and her parents, until one day Mom and Dad (Diane Lane and Kyle MacLachlan, respectively) decide to uproot from Minnesota to San Francisco. Joy tries to manage the tumult with a smile, but when Sadness intervenes, the two of them wind up getting hoovered into the furthest regions of Riley’s mind, leaving only Anger, Disgust, and Fear to run the show. (Take two guesses as to how well that goes.) So Joy and Sadness quest to get back to headquarters and keep Riley from becoming emotionally numb, aided along the way by Bing Bong (Richard Kind), Riley’s childhood imaginary friend.
Inside Out is many things, but above all else it’s smart. Not necessarily smart in an academic way – director Pete Docter should ready himself for backlash from the psychologist community – but in how well it conveys the need for emotional harmony. Without Joy, Riley spirals. With Joy, she does better, but only superficially; the film makes a case for the dangers of repression, and follows through on its initial set-up beautifully. People aren’t ruled by one emotion alone. They’re ruled by a hierarchy of emotion. (You might sneer at the film’s basic conceit for turning abstractions into cartoons. You might also be an insufferable bore.) Inside Out presents its layers of human complexity with compassion and wit. It’s an often outrageously funny movie. Just as often, it’s deeply, satisfyingly sad. Pixar understands the value of a good laugh as much as the importance of a good cry. You’ll do plenty of both throughout.
You’ll also be awestruck by the film’s aesthetic. Inside Out is one of the few, or only, 2015 films that benefits from being seen in 3D. The colors pop, and the characters’ fuzzy textures take on a physical aspect. We feel like we could just reach out and pluck them from the frame. But maybe that’s because we all acknowledge these feelings, given shape here through Pixar’s cutely crafted avatars. Inside Out cuts adventure out of whole cloth while inviting us to recognize our own nostalgia in the highs and lows of Riley’s spiritual journey; it’s a true original that deserves lauds for braininess, ingenuity, and empathy in equal measure.