It is such a joy to report that Pixar is back in form. After a few years of weak soup, it’s so nice to see them back on the track that made us fall in love with their confections in the first place. In the animation game, Pixar was always been the better factory, churning out creative projects that were destined to last for generations while their rivals simply spat out quickly made product mounted solely on what was popular at the moment. But after Up six years ago, the studio seemed to have lost its way and they haven’t produced greatness since. At least, until now.
Inside Out is a grand and bold work of imagination and creativity, made by people who are not content to give the audience the bargain basement, but to offer something that is going to last. Thematically, it resembles Toy Story 2 in that it is also about the pangs and stresses of growing up and losing the most valued trappings of childhood as adolescence washes ashore.
The movie, for the most part, takes place inside the head of Reilly Anderson, an 11 year-old girl from a nice family who is suffering the slings and arrows of approaching adolescence. Inside her brain is the complex that make up the core of her being, driven by the aforementioned Joy (voiced by Amy Poehler); Sadness (voiced by Phyllis Smith from “The Office”), Fear (voiced by Bill Hader) who looks like a question mark; Anger (Lewis Black) who dresses like middle-management; And Disgust (voiced by Mindy Kailing), a green shimmering ball of teenage dismissiveness.
Of course, this is not the most original plot in the world. I think immediately of the early 90s sitcom “Herman’s Head” which had the same plot only the protagonist was a grown man. There was the Eddie Murphy comedy Meet Dave, and horror adventures like The Cell and Identity. I can also think of a bit once written by Woody Allen that takes place inside the body of a man during his mating ritual.
The movie is original in it’s approach. It begins on the day Reilly is born as the palette of her inner being begins to form. First a ball of light, then a pixie figure called Joy. Little Reilly’s mind is a blank slate that very quickly forms the emotional core of her being. Along with Joy come Sadness, Fear, Anger and Disgust. What her mind eventually evolves into is a complex of emotions, feelings, trains of thought, ideas, images, moods and memories. What she carries with her, what she keeps, and what she dismisses are at the core of this very impressive visual textbook, one that not only forms into a visual masterwork, but also one of the most creative and ambitious animated features in many years. This is what animated movies are all about.
The quintet at the controls all form the core of Reilly’s current mood. Joy seems to have the lead most of the time, but there’s never a sense that anyone is elbowing anyone out of the way. Everyone has their turn at the console of Reilly’s current emotional state. The key battle comes between Joy and Sadness. Joy sees Sadness as an unnecessary element to Reilly’s state of harmony, but Sadness knows that in order to achieve harmony one must experience sadness to get to joy.
Every minute of every day, Reilly’s brain produces a memory that is represented as a tiny marble colored by whatever emotional state the memory comes from. Those memories are either stored in Long Term; stored in a special place for Core Memories; or are disposed of all together. What comes of Reilly’s current experience is juxtaposed by what has happened before. New things come in and old things go out – some are stored in her long term memory, some are buried in her subconscious, and old, forgotten memories are deposited into a dark chasm where they eventually evaporate from existence much like a deleted file on a computer. Her current emotional state is also represented by various theme parks that begin operating based on her current state of mind representing Family, Honesty, Hockey (her favorite past time) and her moments of Goofball playfulness.
The drama begins with a change in Reilly’s life. Her parents are uprooting from Minnesota to San Francisco, meaning that Reilly has to leave behind friends, and the best memories of her childhood. Her churning emotional states breed confusion, and anger, and resentment forcing a battle between Joy and Sadness mostly due to Joy’s concern that Sadness will infect core memories (when she touches them they turn blue). The two end up outside the command center with no way to get back, leaving Reilly’s supplementary emotions, Fear, Anger and Disgust at the controls. What lies on the other side is the strangest journey since Alice fell down the rabbit hole. Joy and Sadness take a strange journey through the recesses of Reilly’s ever-changing brain, particularly the Long Term memory library that is often cleared out when Reilly no longer needs them.
The script draws a very clean line between what is happening to Reilly in the world and the universe inside her head. Things are changing, evolving, breaking down, rebuilding – in other words, she’s growing up. And just as Reilly doesn’t understand these changes, neither do the representations in her brain. The tragedy of what happens to the trappings of childhood once Reilly has moved past them is a key theme here, expressed most achingly in the form of a circus elephant named Bing-Bong (beautifully voiced by Richard Kind), who once served as Reilly’s imaginary friend, but now lingers in the forgotten realms of her brain, always aware that he is many years late for the memory dump. Bing-Bong is a tragic figure who, much like Jessie the Cowgirl in Toy Story 2, is a figure whose purpose dried up long ago. He serves as a guide to get Joy and Sadness on board Reilly’s train of thought and back to the control center even though everyone knows his eventual fate.
The journey getting back to the control center is a trip through a virtual psychology textbook including a a trip through the memory dump where all of her useless memories are dried up and forgotten. Then a creepy journey into Reilly’s subconscious, where Joy and Sadness come across an oversized clown who isn’t evil, but is terrifying in the way that a small child might see it. He’s a giant, but only because that’s how Reilly saw him in real life.
But the most bizarre sequence comes when the trio takes a shortcut through a forbidden realm called Abstract Thought where the three figures find themselves misshapen into a cubist state then into a flattened out form representative of early European animation. It’s a fun sequence – a head scratcher – but a fun sequence none-the-less.
Much more of the plot, I cannot discuss. What has been described here only scratches the surface. Let me just say that as with last year’s The LEGO Movie, this is an animated feature made with loving care, a story told by writers and animators that aren’t satisfied to nail down their story to a pat formula or to whatever colorful bupkis they can sell at McDonald’s. The people behind Inside Out – that being screenwriters Meg LeFauve, Josh Cooley, and Peter Docter writing from a story by Reynoldo del Carmen – want to make something special, something that will linger in your mind. They’ve taken the animated genre and they’ve stretched it to the limit in an effort to create something special. They’ve created a great journey, an emotional journey. One that will last for generations to come.