In his book Creativity, Inc., Ed Catmull describes a “Braintrust” meeting discussing a challenging scene in Inside Out, when Brad Bird told director Pete Docter, “You’re trying to do a triple back flip in a gale force wind, and you’re mad at yourself for not sticking the landing. Like, it’s amazing you’re alive!”
Inside Out sticks the landing.
Like Pete Docter’s other films Monsters Inc. and Up, Inside Out delights in defying easy description. The movie takes us inside the head of a young girl named Riley as she is uprooted from her home in Minnesota to move to San Francisco. The real lead characters are the five prime emotions inside her head that govern her actions: Joy (Amy Poehler), Sadness (Phyllis Smith), Anger (Lewis Black), Disgust (Mindy Kaling), and Fear (Bill Hader), with Joy dominating the others (often to the deliberate exclusion of Sadness). The strains of the move on Riley’s emotional state ultimately lead to Joy and Sadness getting ejected from Riley’s headquarters (whose name is one of many gags that are truly brilliant and groan-inducing puns) and flung into the further reaches of her brain. The impact of their absence is felt almost immediately, as Riley’s reactions to her situation only make things worse, while Joy and Sadness have to traverse the unknown territory of Riley’s mind in their efforts to make things right again.
It is easier to describe Inside Out‘s technical successes, even though by now it’s redundant to say that Pixar has produced a visually stunning film with a solid, well-written story that’s excellently performed by both animators and voice actors. Regardless of the medium used, all animation is artificial and painstakingly crafted a frame at a time, so it’s remarkable when any form of animation can be described as “spontaneous.” Big Hero 6 was the first time I felt CGI had the same sense of liveliness and spontaneity as the best hand-drawn animated films, but Inside Out betters that once again. This is not simply a matter of computing power allowing for more sophisticated textures, rendering, or rigging (although those contributing factors shouldn’t be trivialized either). Inside Out leverages those technological advances to really bring its characters to life. There’s a scene early in the movie when Joy scurries around headquarters rousing the other emotions out of bed, and the sense of life and motion is every bit as good as the best hand-drawn animated works Disney ever produced. I’m also tickled by the way the particles that compose each of the main emotions blend together on screen to make them look like Muppets (a creative decision I have to believe is deliberate, considering longtime Muppeteers Frank Oz and Dave Goelz have cameo voice roles in the movie).
Inside Out also sports a wonderful voice cast. The irrepressible Amy Poehler is a delight as Joy, while Phyllis Smith is the most enjoyably morose character since Winnie the Pooh‘s Eeyore. It’s easy to like Joy, with her boundless good cheer, but Ms. Smith had an impossibly hard job to make Sadness likable while staying true to the emotion’s nature, and she pulls off the balancing act beautifully. Lewis Black, Mindy Kaling, and Bill Hader are so perfectly cast in their supporting roles that it’s a little disappointing that they don’t get more to do. My personal favorite is probably Mr. Black’s Anger, since impotent fury is a rich vein of comedy that he is uniquely equipped to mine effectively. Finally, Richard Kind deserves special notice for his scene-stealing turn, for which I’ll only say that his gentle tenor and cheerful exuberance are perfect, and that he acquits himself marvelously in a role that pushes him to places he doesn’t often get to go as an actor. Mr. Kind is normally the designated buffoon, as he has been in several other Pixar films, and while his role here starts on that foundation, it achieves surprising depth before the movie is done. Pete Docter demonstrated his ability in manipulating our emotions with the first five minutes of Up. Inside Out doubles down on those emotional gambles, high and low, and pays them out tenfold.
However, solid animation, a compelling story, heartfelt emotion, and wonderful performances have been the hallmark of Pixar’s films since Toy Story. The real brilliance of Inside Out is how it functions as both a story and as a metaphor for the workings of the mind. It’s astonishing to see how theories on the brain’s inner workings are utilized to push the story forward and create multiple layers of meaning. One wildly creative and entertaining scene explains theories of Abstract Thought in easily absorbed visual terms, while simultaneously putting the characters into genuine danger. It’s one of many triple back flips in a gale force winds that the movie pulls off so often and so effortlessly that the seeming ease of execution completely masks the degree of difficulty. The very best Pixar films filter a sense of child-like wonder through intelligent adult sensibilities, which craft layers of meaning that grow and change on repeat viewings. Inside Out is far, far more sophisticated in balancing those child/adult aspects than any other film Pixar has made.
The way that Inside Out works as both a satisfying story and as a metaphor even pinpoints the vague discontent I’ve had with many of the studio’s recent films. The studio’s mantra is that “Story is King,” but I don’t think that’s the sole reason for their staying power. Their best films give voice to deeper themes and metaphors that we react to on a more subconscious level, sometimes so deeply that it’s hard to fully articulate what we’re reacting to. You can’t explain an instinct, but you can’t deny that you feel it. Toy Story and Toy Story 2 are both buddy pictures, but they carry deep meaning about the nature of friendship and love. Monsters Inc takes the long way around for its message that laughter can be more powerful than screaming. The Incredibles has an astonishing amount to say about power, adulthood, parenthood, responsibility, and the nature of being truly exceptional, all wrapped up in amazing superhero action. These movies are about more than just what they’re about.
I’d argue that none of the studio’s films have consistently succeeded on those multiple levels since The Incredibles. Movies like Finding Nemo, both Cars movies, Brave, and Monsters University are all good stories masterfully told, but if there are metaphors or deeper themes in these movies at all, they don’t feel as baked-in. Toy Story works as a buddy movie and as a metaphor for the many different flavors of friendship; Monsters University is just a buddy movie. I don’t mean to trivialize the achievement in clearing the hurdle of a good story that’s well-told, especially since millions are spent on dozens of movies every year that still fail to clear that hurdle. But as I’ve said in the past, Pixar has conditioned us to expect more. It shouldn’t be a surprise that a movie with emotions as its main characters can send us on an emotional roller-coaster ride. Inside Out‘s real achievement is that it also provides a framework to understand the meaning and the value of that roller-coaster ride.
Inside Out is an incandescently brilliant film: brave, innovative, audacious, avant-garde filmmaking that is disguised as a children’s movie. It is to the Pixar metaphor movie what Penn and Teller are for stage magic: they tell you the trick they’re going to do in advance, fully telegraphing that they are about to trick you. Then they execute the trick so masterfully that you enjoy being tricked, even incorporating your understanding of the trick into your enjoyment of its execution. Inside Out does its triple back flips against a gale force winds again and again, sticking the landing every time in ways that are wonderful and beautiful and moving.