Although they never technically left, Pixar hasn't felt like Pixar to me since Toy Story 3, and that was (amazingly) five years ago. I'm happy to say that Inside Out feels like a triumphant return to form, and a timely one for both the company and the world. Inside Out isn't just one of - if not the - best of Pixar's movies, it's a necessary empathy cocktail when we need it most.
Inside Out is a hard movie to wrap a bow on, and by bow I mean trailer. To start with, Inside Out is sort of two movies at once. The real world movie is about Riley (Kaitlyn Dias), an 11 year-old girl who has led a predominantly happy life until the present, when her father (Kyle MacLachlan) accepts a new job and the family moves from Minnesota to San Francisco, taking Riley way out of her comfort zone. This story is in a way simple, wisely, because the other movie at play is much more verbose and abstract. Riley's mind is controlled by five emotions: Joy (Amy Poehler), Fear (Bill Hader), Disgust (Mindy Kaling), Anger (Lewis Black) and Sadness (Phyllis Smith). Joy is in charge until circumstances lead her and Sadness away to explore other areas/concepts of the mind as the other three take the Riley helm. So in a way, now we have three stories going on for most of the movie, and two of those three involve lots of metaphors. Inside Out in no way feels compromised by the need to sell toys or what have you, made with the artist's vision uncompromised, letting Disney sort out the mess of marketing later. Which is a blessing for a mega conglomerate, and without the Pixar reputation would be nigh impossible. But also hasn't set the world on fire with anticipation like other Pixar movies.
Although the first thing I thought of when announced, Inside Out is not just the old Fox sitcom Herman's Head. The script is much more than “Riley reacts to situations in one of five ways,” and the film manages to have these metaphorical emotions controlling Riley while maintaining her as an individual person, making her own decisions and being responsible for them. The five emotions react honestly to their namesakes, but each is doing so for the benefit of Riley. Fear spazzes when she's in danger; Disgust reacts to protect her from poison. Even Anger, as tempting as it must have been to just let Lewis Black scream at everything, is happy and cheering with all the others when good things happen for Riley. On the topic of writerly will power, although we get glimpses of other people's minds and emotions, it's sparse. These gags could have been the whole movie in someone else's hands.
Many movies boast “for kids and adults alike!”, but I haven't come across a film where that is completely true while the experiences might be so very different. The reason I like Inside Out so much is because of the subtext, layers so effortlessly woven underneath a movie that even without them is great and charming and funny. Pete Docter (Monsters, Inc., Up) and the rest of the team not only managed to blend multiple schools of psychological thought into a cohesive abstract world, they did so in such a straightforward way for kids to understand with astonishing ease. While the kiddos were watching Amy Poehler and Phyllis Smith and Richard Kind (as Riley's imaginary friend Bing Bong) do fantastic and heartfelt performances on the surface, I was seeing a lot of details both overt and subtle that led me to reflect on myself, others, or a hypothetical me dealing with a hypothetical Riley. Seated in front of me was a mother and daughter (around Riley's age), and if Inside Out wasn't enough of an empathy factory, I couldn't help but watch the mother's reactions here and there and wonder how she felt. Every little thing Joy or Sadness did had me thinking “What did that just do to Riley? Has that happened to me? How will I react if that happens to my hypothetical future legacy child?” The storytelling balances both complex and simple ideas, and comes from such an honest place. Like seeing fingerprints on claymation characters, it's crystal clear how much of Pete Docter is in this movie, from trying to understand his own daughter to just little details here and there, which keeps the movie authentic and human.
It would be a shame to not mention how good Inside Out looks and sounds. When every Pixar movie opens, my own joy (let's say voiced by Billy Eichner) yells about how this is the best looking CG animation I've ever seen, and Inside Out is no different. Not only is the opening shot a breathtaking close up of Riley as a baby (and before that a visually-impressive short called Lava), but Inside Out gets to dabble in various art styles in a way no other Pixar movie has had the opportunity to. Composer Michael Giacchino (The Incredibles, Speed Racer, Star Trek, every movie this summer) gives us one of his best (again), this time thematically adding more than a hint of sadness to his usual upbeat jazzy sound parade, reminiscent of Bruno Coulais' Coraline score in spots.
Inside Out is one of those movies you keep thinking about. There's very few animated movies or movies in general that can present such high concepts to children without it feeling boiled down, all while retaining the core job of being an entertaining movie. Inside Out is Pete Docter's best movie and everything that embodies Pixar: humor, humanity, and a story that leaves us better than we started.