Pixar Animation Studios. What else really needs to be said? Arguably the most well known modern studio working exclusively with animated films (aside from Disney’s own animation company), at this point they really speak for themselves. One of the most noteworthy things about Pixar is how they are and remain one of the few working studios that relies on their creativity and the good will behind their products to sell themselves, instead of merely relying on brand name recognition for marketing purposes – or at least not up until the last couple of years. True, their last couple of outings have underwhelmed at best and at worst been Cars 2, but Pixar’s track record on the whole is still reliable for having consistently put out quality content time and time again. Therefore, for this reviewer to claim that Inside Out is not only a welcome return to form but could very well be their best film to date, well, that’s really saying something.
Explaining the premise of Inside Out could prove to be a bit of a task, as there are two main plot-lines occurring at the same time, and yet they’re the same one? Just hear me out. In the external story, a young girl named Riley is moving away from her home in Minnesota with her parents to San Francisco and finds herself having trouble adjusting to her new lifestyle and surroundings. But the main thrust of the story goes on inside of Riley’s head, as five of her primary emotions (led by Joy, with Sadness, Fear, Disgust, & Anger all included as well) are personified and inhabit a Headquarters of sorts that serves as the place where Riley gets all of her emotions from and all of whom work together to make Riley’s life as happy and pleasant as possible.
And that’s all you need to know going in, as one of the biggest pleasures of watching Inside Out is experiencing its plot unfold with a large amount of surprises and unexpectedly raw emotional beats along the way. Not for a second does the film feel manipulative or cheap, and the stakes simultaneously feel both high and low. The biggest thing at risk in the film is one person’s happiness, but for both the young girl at the center of the film and the emotions in her head, it’s the entire world to them. Young Riley is fleshed out as such a sweet, likable character that seeing her descend into sadness and depression as the tenants of her personality begin to disappear (this will all make sense once you see it in context, trust me) feels just as tense as any film featuring the actual end of the world as a plot device.
Inside Out is arguably Pixar’s most ambitious undertaking yet – seeking to portray the inner workings and mechanisms of the mind as a tangible, real world setting and to do so in a fairly straightforward, accessible manner on top of it. And in that regard, the film is a tremendous success for not only managing to pull it off, but doing so in such a lively, creative, and all around satisfying way. The film feels not so much like an exploration into one specific person’s mind, but a foray into our own minds, and as the characters stumble into one abstract, mentally fueled setting after another (Imagination Land, dream production, the subconscious, etc.), we feel as if we’re learning more about ourselves and the way our own minds operate, in addition to getting to know the characters herein a bit more.
The premise of the film opens up a lot of potential for some really nuanced, complicated storytelling, and Inside Out fortunately takes advantage of a lot of these possibilities. Because of this, it proves to be surprisingly complex for a family film, filled with such a brisk sense of forward-moving storytelling and clear respect for the intelligence of the viewer that is unfortunately not so often found in mainstream American cinema these days, i.e. the way it so matter-of-factly shows that in the Headquarters of Riley’s parents’ heads, Sadness is in control of the mother’s mind and Anger leads the control center of her father’s mind. And right from the opening moments, it’s pretty clear that from a narrative standpoint a lot of what takes place in Riley’s head is meant to be symbolic of her own experience and budding adolescence, rather than literally having a bunch of entities she has no knowledge or comprehension of controlling her every move.
It’s not exactly the same sort of quasi-symbolic approach to this subject matter as Spike Jonze’s equally brilliant Where the Wild Things Are was, but it falls into the same general ballpark of more surreal, abstract ways to tell a children’s story (although to suggest this film is meant only for younger audiences really minimizes the achievements of the film and those who worked on it). Which is to say nothing of all the psychological stones left unturned and probably meant for further interpretation. For instance, what does it say about Riley that of all the characters whose heads/headquarters we peer into during the course of the film, she is the only one whose five main emotions contain both male and female characterizations, while everyone else’s headquarters are exclusive to their own gender? Things like this leave possibilities for discussion and debates that could go on for quite some; a true hallmark of a creative and innovative work of art, assumed target audience be damned.
Overall, Inside Out is an utter delight through and through. Working equally well as quality, rewarding mainstream entertainment or a subversively complex study of childhood psychology and what really goes into mental and emotional maturity from childhood into the stages of young adulthood. Not only that, but it’s a really important film for children to see, given its mature and necessary lesson about taking the good with the bad in life and how a proper balance of positive/negative emotions is more beneficial in the long run, rather than fully embracing one and abandoning the other. It’s truly a nourishing antidote to all the dopey, condescending children’s entertainment currently out there. People, Pixar is finally back in top form and let’s hope they manage to stay there. Fingers crossed for The Good Dinosaur.