What makes a Pixar movie? It used to be that they’d stand out only because of technology employed, yet now that everything from Jurassic World to Gravity is essential a CGI animated film, it’s certainly not what sets it apart. In fact, with the advent of truly photorealistic capabilities Pixar is moving into more “cartoony” realms, allowing their characters to stretch and squash in ways that’d make Tex Avery proud.
At its best, what makes a great Pixar film is where they take chances. It’s why often their sequels are a disappointment, as often they’re giving us more of the same rather than pushing into something new (Toy Story 3 being an obvious exception).
On paper Inside Out sounds kind of preposterous – let’s spend sometime inside an 11 year old girl (“in a profoundly wholesome way”, to quote Mindy Kaling), and explore the conflict between her emotions. We’ve got Joy, Anger, Sadness, Disgust and Fear all vying for attention inside her cerebral control room, acting out their parts to generate memories that, in turn, combine to form personality.
The trailers also left me a bit trepidatious – were we just going to get a few hours of super annoying stock emotions doled out in fits? I’m not big on spending time with obnoxious pre-adolescents at the best of times, how would this all work?
Disney Canada even gave us a tease of the first hour or so, and while it all looked pretty, and the setup was fun, even then I wasn’t sure they’d pull it off.
Well, imagine my relief when seeing the finished film. Not only do they pull it off, this is easily the best Pixar film in years.
The way that Pete Docter and his fellow filmmakers manage to do this is kind of extraordinary – they allow the film to be what you expect it to be (silly, rambunctious), and then managed in the second half to take it up a notch, to give it a sophistication and subtlety that’s simply wonderful. In the best way the film itself matures, becoming more rich and powerful as its message gets honed.
It’s no secret that the stories from animated studios such as Pixar get worked over for years, and this five year project is obviously no exception. Sometimes when the corners are filed off you’re left with something that feels like it’s been processed by a committee, but here it just feels elegant and novelistic, as within what’s ostensibly a children’s story you have real emotions being elicited by characters that are, not coincidentally, emotions themselves.
The voice cast is exceptional, with the main ensemble of Amy Poehler, Bill Hader, Mindy Kaling, Phyllis Smith and Lewis Black driving much of the narrative. Poehler and Smith in particular become the crux of the work, and their banter is a delight. Critically, just as you’d think the shtick would become tired the filmmakers find ways of attenuating both story and performance, so that you’re never sick of a bounding Joy or a melancholic Sorrow.
I loved when the film got surreal, with a taste of Derrida’s deconstructioning thrown in for good measure, or a Bing-Bong gives us a taste of the truly insane workings of a young brain (as voiced by Richard Kind, it gave as always warm memories of another film about emotions and inner life, A Serious Man).
Through and through, Inside Out is a delight, tackling the ennui of early adolescence in a way that’s both entertaining and enlightening. This is classic Pixar at its best, and easily one of the finest films, animated or not, of the year.