As an animation brand, Pixar enjoys a similar reputation for quality that its parent company, Disney, has carried at various intervals since it began the field of feature-length animation back in the late 1930s. Disney has been through a few so-called ‘golden eras’ in its long animation history, and as Pixar has grown, it too has begun to show signs of emulating that peak and trough pattern.
Since the extraordinary run of success Pixar put together in the second half of the noughties (beginning with Ratatouille and ending with Toy Story 3), there has been, by the company’s high standards, a bit of a lull. Cars 2 was light, not matching its predecessor (which was itself one of the studio’s lesser pictures), Brave was sweet but ultimately unmemorable, and Monsters University, while very good, wasn’t up to the level of the original. So while it would be unfair to say Pixar had something to prove, it’s fair to say that Inside Out, the studio’s latest feature directed by Up’s Pete Docter (alongside Ronnie del Carmen), had a fair amount riding on it. This could, and hopefully will be, the start of a new ‘golden era’ at Pixar. Inside Out is everything the studio can be when at its absolute best.
Inside Out’s main characters are the emotions inside a girl called Riley’s mind. Together, Joy, Sadness, Anger, Fear and Disgust must program this developing human brain to comprehend and react to the situations around it. They store Riley’s memories, recalling them when necessary, and decide how she should react in the real world. All of this is set inside the abstract canvas of the mind: an endlessly changing landscape filled with thoughts, memories and islands representing key personality deciders, including ‘family’, ‘friendship’ and ‘honesty’. When Riley’s home life is disturbed by her parents’ intention to move to the city, the emotions must find a way for her to deal with change, and the inherent issues of growing up. Problem is, Joy (Amy Poehler) and Sadness (Phyllis Smith) have become lost in Riley’s mind, leaving the more combustible emotions in charge.
The film is an emotional rollercoaster, pun intended, a visual treat and a triumph of dramatic imagination. It, like all the best family films, is smart and un-patronising, both for kids and adults alike. The ideas are as colossal as ‘imagination’, ‘memory’ and ‘emotion’ but the film dramatises all of this through the medium of adorable, lovable and beautifully written characters. Riley’s reactions feel real, as does the sometimes twisted logic of her emotional controllers, but the film doesn’t ever relax too much into its winning setup; instead, Docter constantly pushes his film towards the next idea, the next logical progression of this metaphorical world, and the film, as a result, is not only emotionally complex and richly rewarding, but also varied and thrilling. The fight to restore Riley’s emotional balance, while retaining the core memories that make her who she is, is achingly beautiful, and the film regularly pulls on the heartstrings in the most raw and satisfying ways.
Inside Out’s brilliant screenplay, by Docter, Meg LeFauve and Josh Cooley, allows its characters time to breathe without scrimping on dramatic and action sequences to keep everything moving, but dedicates real love to all of its characters, even the minor ones. There are so many details in here – even in throwaway elements such as the imaginary boyfriend generator in Riley’s mind – to make the whole thing a joy. What’s even more impressive is that the film is only 90 minutes long. How they squeezed such a dense tapestry into such a tight runtime is a minor miracle.
I haven’t even mentioned Michael Giacchino’s tender score or the quality of the voice acting. The quality of the animation we can take as read. Suffice it to say, all of Inside Out’s elements come together to make it a memorable addition to Pixar’s list of hits. Docter’s film builds on the emotional resonance achieved in earlier Pixar films, in particular his own Up, and eloquently expresses those feelings on a canvas rich with invention. There’s even time for an amusing coda showing the activities of emotions in the brains of minor characters, and as always there’s a charming short film preceding the feature, in this case Lava , written and directed by James Ford Murphy, which isn’t one of Pixar’s very best shorts, but will raise a smile nonetheless. All in all, Pixar’s latest is an unmissable treat.