The second decade of the 21st century has been rough on Pixar. Between the releases of Toy Story in 1995 and Up in 2009, the animation studio that launched a thousand imitators had a perfect record. Each of its films pushed technological boundaries while telling compelling stories that crossed traditional age barriers, and even the singular sequel that it released during this halcyon age was quite good. Looking back, we can see the seeds of the studio’s slump being sown by the unwitting hand of Lasseter, but the trend was so positive that even Cars glows with reflected glory. Remember that during this period, Brad Bird, Andrew Stanton, and Pete Docter each made a pair of classic films for the studio.
Then Toy Story 3 arrived with the new decade. While that film manages to put together a great story largely due to its outstanding final act, it displayed many of the early symptoms of what was to follow, particularly the endless pop culture references standing in for cheeky subversion and a growing reliance on known-quantity voice actors. Toy Story 3 was followed by Larry the Cable Guy vehicle Cars 2, the fairy tale princess movie Brave, and the “Animal House for kids” spoof Monsters University. While Brave was simply underwhelming compared to the abject failures of the other two films, it appeared that in three short years Pixar had torpedoed itself by succumbing to the market pressures of a sequel-driven industry. The studio’s dedication to fostering unique voices seemed not only gone but forgotten in favor of a Disney-ified release schedule full of franchise cash-ins and Princess movies. Fortunately, Inside Out functions as something of a return to form for the studio.
Pete Docter is back in the director’s chair, and he turns in the most original film that the studio has made since his previous project, Up. In his first two films, Docter focused on the ways in which our emotions shape us as we grow up: in Monsters Inc, he explores the methods by which we manage fear as a necessary, if not entirely pleasant, part of life, while in Up he illustrates the ways in which heartbreak can cripple and ultimately redeem those who suffer from it. With Inside Out, he makes a convincing argument for emotional complexity being the hallmark of maturity.
The film follows five cardinal emotions as they guide a young girl named Riley through her adolescence. By means of a physical control board, Joy, Sadness, Fear, Anger, and Disgust all vie for influence over Riley, though for the most part they defer to Joy. The story focuses on the particularly difficult time after Riley's family moves from Minnesota to San Francisco; when real life gets in the way, Joy and Sadness are sent on a journey through Riley’s memories on their way towards a consolidation. With Joy and Sadness removed from the control room, Fear, Anger, and Disgust first attempt to mimic Joy before leading Riley to abandon her new life in a misguided effort to return to her old one.
The central conceit is the film’s strongest asset, and it leads to some excellent deconstructive moments. The best scene in the movie features Riley eating dinner with her parents on the night after her disastrous first day of school in San Francisco, a familiar setting for angsty teens both on and off screen. Here, Riley's snappy responses to her parents’ innocent questions are explained by the motions of Fear, Anger, and Disgust attempting to affect Joy within her head. Even better, we then get to see the teams that drive her parents as they react to their daughter’s newfound attitude. The mother’s measured, conciliatory Humours are opposed by those of the father, which, prior to the argument breaking out, are busily watching hockey on the control screen inside his skull. The mustachioed little personifications then go into DEFCON 2, with results that are equally hilarious and heartbreaking. Thusly, this otherwise standard scene is turned into a dynamic exploration of what is going on inside each of the participants’ heads.
Docter’s thesis with Inside Out is that being lead by any single emotion, even Joy, is childish, and that we must balance our various impulses in order to function as adults. Joy grows from disliking Sadness’s effect on Riley to accepting the importance of that opposite emotion as a balancing force for her own. The Humours become copilots, working together to drive Riley instead of pushing each other out of the way whenever they want to control the girl. Visually, this transformation is represented by the glass orbs of memories: at first, the orbs take on the color of the emotion under whose control they were created, and by the end, after the installation of a new, wider control board, the orbs contain mixtures of colors, indicating Riley’s newfound emotional maturity.
Not only is Inside Out literally about emotions, but it also has a strong emotional through-line in the form of Riley herself. Like Pixar’s best films, Inside Out’s story focuses on the transitionary time between childhood and early-adulthood, where the young enter into the adult world with often disastrous results. If Joy is the protagonist, then Riley functions as a combination of plot container and antagonist; she represents the larger force that the Humours are struggling to contain. However, calling her the antagonist suggests a more active role than she actually plays, as her every move is ultimately controlled by the power play between the various personifications. The audience identifies more with Riley’s struggles in the real world than with Joy’s internal challenges if only because they are closer to our own, and watching the interplay of emotions within Riley as she muddles her way through her new, strange environment is cathartic.
Moreover, Inside Out blends child-friendly plotting and design with adult-ready dialogue and excellent animation in a way that is quintessentially Pixar. The main source for the references meant for adults is the San Francisco setting, including lightning-fast jokes about bears and gourmet pizza that zip right over the heads of audience members below a certain age. Similarly, Riley’s journey resonates on different levels depending on the life experience of the viewer; older audience members view her turmoil with hindsight while younger viewers identify with it more intimately, and the youngest of all will find themselves rooting for the brightly-colored Humours themselves.
Inside Out is the finest film to come out of Pixar since Up. This fact makes a strong argument for auteur theory as it applies to animation, as it would seem that, even within the workings of a massive, collaborative studio such as Pixar, the director’s voice and vision shines through. Whether Inside Out represents a turn in Pixar’s critical fortunes or an anomaly remains to be seen. The fact that the studio’s next film, The Good Dinosaur, is helmed by first-timer Peter Sohn is a good sign, but after that loom a series of sequels to existing properties that threaten a repeat of the past five years. Let us hope that the critical success of Inside Out convinces Lasseter et al to scrap these franchise-builders and return to the risky experimentation that made Pixar great.