The Pixar animation studio has been in a miniature slump of late. During the 2000s, it was the gold standard for animation, producing one great film after another. Then came “Cars 2” in 2011, a lame sequel to one of their lesser efforts, “Cars.” After that was “Brave” and “Monsters University,” a prequel to “Monsters Inc.” Both films weren’t terrible but they were underwhelming and felt like the kind of lackluster animation films other studios used to make in a desperate attempt to compete with Pixar.
Fortunately, the most recent effort, “Inside Out,” directed and co-written by Pete Docter, is a massive improvement over the previous efforts.
Funny, endearing and full of intelligence and vitality, “Inside Out” is the studio’s best film since 2010’s “Toy Story 3.”
Simply put, the movie is about the inner workings of the human brain: how all the different parts work together in unison. It’s about how all the emotions we experience as humans — happiness, sadness, anger, fear, etc. — are necessary to our growth and development. And, most importantly, if we experience too much of one emotion, our brains can get caught in a flux.
However, “Inside Out” isn’t a science documentary but a rousing, energetic adventure. Docter and co-writers Meg Lafauve and Josh Cooley create a vibrant 3D animated world, capturing the essence of the brain with wit and originality.
Not surprisingly, “Inside Out” is packed with jokes, encompassing a wide spectrum of high and low. While there are the mandatory juvenile gross-out/physical gags, there are just as many — if not more — sophisticated jokes for the non-kiddies in the audience. And best of all, the humor feels organic; it helps drive the story forward, instead of hindering it. At the same time, the movie packs quite an emotional punch. This perfect balance between genuine humor and genuine emotion reminds you how great Pixar can be.
“Inside Out” primarily revolves around the five main emotions in the form of tiny, bright-colored figures: Joy (Amy Poehler), Fear (Bill Hader), Sadness (Phyllis Smith, of “The Office”), Anger (Lewis Black) and Disgust (Mindy Kaling). Joy takes on the role of lead emotion, making sure to keep the other four in check. Operating out of a central command post of sorts, the core emotions figure out how to best navigate the life of young Riley, the human they control.
By nature, all five characters can’t help but be a little one note since they have one distinct quality. And, yet, as the movie goes on, they develop personalities of their own, with emotions and traits that go beyond their name trait.
As the protagonist, Joy goes through the most change and development. Much like Riley, Joy is also growing up, learning valuable lessons along the way, the most important being, one can’t react to every experience with joy. By the end, Joy is not simply an emotion but a full-fledged, matured character.
In terms of plot, Riley is forced to move away from her comfortable life in the Midwest to new and scary San Francisco. This leads to mental imbalance and chaos, eventually causing Joy and Sadness to be separated from the other three. “Inside Out” is a standard journey movie in structure: Joy and Sadness must travel around Riley’s brain to get back to central command and restore order. Even though we know the outcome, the journey itself is entertaining. Docter and Co. bring the various segments of the brain — the subconscious, long-term memory, etc. — to life in clever and creative ways. One of my personal favorites: imagining the part of the brain that creates dreams as a movie studio.
The movie’s pacing is almost perfect, rarely dragging, while also allowing the viewer time to fully experience each “land” in Riley’s brain. With each leg of the journey, another facet of Riley’s mind is revealed, deepening the overall movie and the characters. At times, we even get a glimpse inside the brains of Riley’s parents, making the filmic world more vibrant and complex.
The action that happens outside the brain — Riley’s relationship with her parents, her adjustments to her new life — is less eventful but still necessary. It shows how the crazy antics going on among the goofy animated characters inside have a very real effect.
Admittedly, Riley is kind of bland, but she’s supposed to be. On the outside, she’s an average girl who looks like everyone else, but it’s the stuff on the inside that makes her unique. Without both worlds interacting with each other, the movie wouldn’t be nearly as intricate and the emotional impact would be lessened.
At this point, it’s difficult to say where “Inside Out” will rank among Golden Age Pixar movies. It’s their best film in years, but considering how disappointing the last three were, that’s not saying much.
Still, outside the context of Pixar, the movie is top-notch —c onsistently funny, heartfelt and extremely well thought out. Docter and Co. have taken great care in developing a cinematic environment both outlandish and real — a strong concept paired with near-flawless execution.