"Forget it Jake, it's cloud town."
Pete Docter has very quietly and conspicuously become Pixar's greatest filmmaker. There are simply no two ways about it, and he is as unassuming a genius as the animation studio has ever produced. With his first film Monsters, Inc., Docter took a simple idea about where the monsters under our bed come from and spun it into a tale of endless whimsy and heart. His second film as a director, Up, gave us one of the greatest love stories ever put on film and did it in just under ten minutes of screen time. For his third feature, Inside Out, Docter has mined the complex emotional world of a pre-teen girl and found in it a universal story about how our emotions dictate the course of our lives.
Never beating the audience over the head with its endlessly intricate handling of such an abstract concept, Inside Out somehow manages to work in the way that all of Pixar's best films do: By never letting the very adult themes interfere with telling a rip-roaring yarn that plays sensationally to both kids and adults. It features all the hallmarks of a truly great Pixar film, most importantly its use of the Commedia dell'arte trope known as a lazzi—more familiar in this day and age as the comedic rule of threes—where jokes are recalled several times to increasingly brilliant effect. It also knows how to use pop culture references like a sharply shot arrow, never overdoing them, and always keeping them fresh and exciting. Pixar, and Docter in particular, are also masters of delivering exposition in brilliantly streamlined ways, by basically always keeping their heady concepts relatable and drenched in familiarity.
Inside Out takes place simultaneously inside and outside the mind of eleven-year old Riley (Kaitlyn Dias), and how five core emotions help her to navigate the world around her. First to the party when Riley is born is Joy (Amy Poehler), the self-appointed leader of the group who is ultimately trying to ensure that Riley has a happy life. The next emotion to arrive, almost immediately after Joy, is Sadness (Phyllis Smith), whose curiosity about why she's not Riley's dominant emotion leads her to create a number of emotional mishaps. In time they are joined by Fear (Bill Hader), Anger (Lewis Black), and Disgust (Mindy Kaling), all of whom serve a specific purpose, but also take a backseat to the dominant Joy throughout the early part of her life.
Riley's world is turned upside down when her mother (Diane Lane) and father (Kyle MacLachlan) uproot from cold Minnesota, where Riley is a hockey star with a burgeoning social life, and move to San Francisco. Such upheaval at a crucial time in a child's development causes the various emotions to compete with one another for control, and following a catastrophe involving Riley's core happy memories, Joy and Sadness find themselves out of Riley's control center and smack dab in the midst of her long term memory. With Joy and Sadness out of the picture, Anger, Fear, and Disgust begin to wreak havoc on Riley's emotional life, as the other two emotions must figure out a way to get the core memories back, safe and sound, in Riley's emotional headquarters. It all reads a lot more confusing than it plays, which is nothing short of a miracle, all things considered.
Docter was driven to create this story first and foremost as a father, and with all due respect, it works light years better than his colleague Andrew Stanton's attempt to do the same with Finding Nemo. This is a film that seeks to understand emotions and how they can be used in harmony with one another, which is nothing short of a supremely lofty goal. That it works at all is a testament to the brilliant creative team at Pixar, but that it works as amazingly well as it does is a credit to Docter's ability to tell a story better than the majority of his contemporaries. He keeps the framework simple and the stakes incredibly high, which is the perfect way to unfold a story like this, making use of one of the most innovative "ticking clocks" in animated films since the Beast's rose in Beauty and the Beast. As Joy and Sadness fight to make their way back to Riley's emotional command center, they are forced to watch helplessly as each of her central "happy places" like honesty, goofiness, friendship, and most crucially, family, are eroding under Fear, Anger, and Disgust's control.
The film works marvelously to help children understand what all of this means, which is part of what makes the film as successful as it is. It keeps the stakes sky high while also making it understandable, and more importantly, not shy to inject the harsh realities of life after childhood into the proceedings. This is a film smart enough to treat children like the small adults that they are, while also knowing that a dose of whimsy helps to make the often cruel truths of life that much more digestible. Perhaps the film's most successfully realized character is Bing Bong (Richard Kind), Riley's imaginary friend who has more or less faded from memory, and now scrapes out an existence in Riley's subconscious. A lesser film would have set him up as an easy villain, but Inside Out is much more interested in gray areas—and gray matter for that, well, matter—and doesn't resort to such uncomplicated solutions to story-telling challenges. I wouldn't be surprised to discover that he ends up being the break-out favorite character of most kids in the audience.
Pixar's other supreme virtue is note perfect casting, and the voice talent here is top notch. Poehler and Smith are fantastic as Joy and Sadness, as are Hader and Kaling, but it's Lewis Black who steals the show as Anger. This is the role Black was born to play and he rises to the occasion in increasingly remarkable ways. Richard Kind is also spectacular as Bing Bong, finally getting a chance to tap into the childlike enthusiasm he brings to his live action work. The film's design is also mind-blowingly good, creating a world that feels safe when it needs to, but isn't afraid to explore the darker realms of a child's mind. This is the absolute pinnacle of animation in 2015, and likely in this entire decade to date.
When I first walked out of Wall-e, I thought I had seen something revolutionary. Something that would change the very course of animation. If Inside Out doesn't have that same immediate sense of changing the game, it's likely because it's much more stealthy and subtle in the way in which it has altered animated storytelling. Make no mistake about it, this film will be used by child psychologists for generations to come for its ability to distill one of the most complex concepts in all of humanity down to a brilliantly orchestrated 90 minute adventure. I am truly in awe of Inside Out, and think it may one day stand alongside the great works of art that transcend storytelling and become a part of the human narrative. This film is a masterwork and one that you should absolutely cherish, especially if you have children.
On a related note, it's interesting that Pixar pushes into the realm of truly revolutionary filmmaking here while the short which preceded the film is one of the laziest the studio has produced. Titled Lava, it's yet another 7 minute short about two inanimate objects—this time volcanos—wishing for and finding true love. This is well-worn territory for the studio, especially considering their last short The Blue Umbrella, which played before Monsters University, essentially told the exact same story. If you're running late, don't sweat it, just make sure you don't miss a solitary second of Inside Out.
GO Rating: 5/5
[Photos via Box Office Mojo]