Pixar's celebrated two decades of output is often associated with the word masterpiece. So what can one make of the beloved animation studio with such podium-owning status after their latest release? If Wall-E, Ratatouille, and Toy Story 3 are generally considered "masterpieces", then what does that make Inside Out, a picture so creative, imaginative, and moving that it puts all other Pixar movies to shame? It's almost unfair to simply label it "another masterpiece", so surely it's something more.
Never before has Pixar bridged the gap between childhood experience and adult understanding so richly and insightfully. Quite an accomplishment for a team that has ambitiously aimed all of their fifteen features right in the multi-demographic centre between young and old. That such emphasis has always been put on the intersection of age and knowledge makes Inside Out feel like something the animation house has been building to from the beginning. The approach is classic Pixar, but the execution truly feels like an evolution, a growth that takes the familiar Pixar smarts and spins them into something organically magical.
Perhaps it's fitting that Pixar has put forth their brainiest work in a movie that's ostensibly about the brain. Inside Out focuses on the personified emotions that exist in everyone's head and how one particular set of emotions struggles to survive a potentially catastrophic moment in their human's life. 11-year-old Riley (Kaitlyn Dias) has always been a happy, fun-loving Minnesota girl whose precious core memories involve her family and a passion for hockey. But when her parents pack everything up and move the family to the bustling world of San Francisco, Riley's emotions get out of whack and find the situation difficult to deal with.
It's a cute idea, that Riley's five main emotions (Joy, Sadness, Anger, Disgust, and Fear) are all workers cohabiting inside their cerebral headquarters, ready to take the button-heavy controls depending on the situation. The cuteness factor is even cranked up by the design style that illustrates each emotion as a fuzzy humanoid thing with one predominant and clearly defined colour, making them almost Muppet-like. But the story that director Pete Docter and a host of screenwriters, including Docter himself, co-director Ronnie Del Carmen, Meg LeFauve, and Josh Cooley, have come up with runs far deeper than a mere family-friendly peek inside Riley's brain and the playful attribution of mechanized gags to the feelings.
There's an undercurrent of brilliant dissection that rises to the surface when Riley finds herself struggling to adapt to her new home. Everything changes because Sadness (Phyllis Smith) becomes curious and starts tainting the comparatively bowling ball-sized spheres that represent Riley's core memories. These memories (well, most of Riley's memories in general) were all previously the sole work of Joy (Amy Poehler), suggesting that Riley has always been a very happy little girl. But now Sadness is getting involved in what Joy perceives to be a detrimental manner and the conflict that ensues sends the two emotions on a journey through the recesses of Riley's mind.
This kind of literal interpretation of how our emotions operate our minds is a novel notion overflowing with visual imagination and fresh, interesting ideas that could easily sustain a feature on their own. Doctor and his team don't stop there, though, and it's the way they mix the literal treatment with abstract concepts that makes Inside Out so tremendously touching. Sadness isn't just a peon unaware of her place in the grand scheme of things; she's a living creature honestly trying to figure out her place. She doesn't touch a core memory and tweak Riley's feelings because she's programmed to do so or because she's feeling malicious, but rather because she's struggling to understand her own power and meaning.
Sadness's journey of self-discovery is as important to Joy as it is to herself and the suggestion is that as Riley grows and learns more about who she is, so do her emotions. There's confusion around every turn and Docter's desire to embrace the complexities of the various situations speaks volumes about his filmmaking talent and identity. He just keeps digging deeper into the concept and finds more and more to say about the emotional experience that we all struggle with throughout our lives.
Inside Out isn't really aiming for a definitive explanation, though. All that Docter wants to say is said so tenderly, so smartly while he continually surrenders to the metaphorical nature of the concept. By personifying the emotions and focusing on them for the majority of the story, Docter has the voices inside Riley's head come to develop her better than she can in the various scenes set outside of her head. It's amazing how much we care about Riley then, considering that she's mainly defined by what we cinematically perceive as other characters.
The emotional connectivity that Docter achieves is an expected goal, but a massive surprise in terms of its spectacular success. Docter could have attempted to simplify the emotion characters so that Riley's development could adopt a cookie-cutter clarity, but instead he adds dimension to Joy and Sadness and makes their journey moving on multiple levels, both for the personified emotions and for Riley, which additionally doubles up again because both journeys inside and outside the head have a reciprocal impact on each other.
Praising Pixar for their character work is certainly nothing new, since that's always been one of their very strongest suits, but again (and not to sound like a broken record) they've never accomplished anything quite as sharply rendered as what we get here. Part of the credit goes to the concept itself, since we essentially have six personalities all representing a single character, with Joy, Sadness, and Riley herself the most dominant forces. But simply using a bunch of mini-characters to build one big character doesn't guarantee great character work, so Docter and the voice cast expand the concept by letting the different personalities feed off the development of the others.
This creates a sort of narrative circle where the protagonist role is split between Riley, Joy, and Sadness with each having their own personal arc that contributes to the greater whole. By asking us to emotionally invest in three characters that are intrinsically connected to each other, Inside Out offers in return a spectacularly stirring experience that maturely, knowingly builds to its dramatic climax by fusing the arcs together and tripling up on the impact of a lesson learned.
Quality comic relief is provided by the other emotions, especially once Joy and Sadness are absent from headquarters for a while and Fear (Bill Hader), Disgust (Mindy Kaling), and Anger (Lewis Black) find they're not the most balanced bunch of decision makers. The script rightly spends more of its time exploring the other parts of Riley's internal landscape, but the comic cutaways help add levity to the emotional proceedings and also support the more dramatic elements by reinforcing the importance of Joy and Sadness in Riley's life.
The characters aren't the only things that are expertly built here, either. The world inside Riley's head has been so completely realized that the clever relatability of the various images and ideas is immeasurably impressive. Docter has mapped out the mind in such an exhaustively creative effort that it seems impossible to comprehend all of the information in a single viewing. Inside Riley's mind, there are physical manifestations of everything from the subconscious to (in one of Pixar's greatest sequences to date) abstract thought. There's even a delightful joke about facts and opinions getting mixed up.
Across the board, Inside Out feels like Pixar on another level than before. They've previously animated whole worlds and populated them with extreme detail, but not with the ingenious originality and wondrous wit Riley's head is treated here. And Pixar has proven more than capable of tugging at heartstrings in the past, but here the tugging is more delicate and yet more powerful because they've never made quite as meaningful a character creation as the trio of Riley, Joy, and Sadness. And in the midst of these milestones is nested Pixar's boldest and sweetest message about life and the act of growing up.
For a company with a celebrated habit of maturely attending to childhood memories, Pixar's ability to make such a superb statement about our emotional existence 20 years into their dominant run of feature releases is nothing short of extraordinary. Inside Out resonates so resoundingly because of how eloquently Docter and his team thematically plot the intricacies of our inner selves, making unforgettable statements about the unexpected interactions and integrations of our emotions.
Inside Riley, Joy cries and Sadness saves the day. The utter profundity and complexity of it all, as a concept, as cinema, is overwhelmingly beautiful, one of animation's most poignant and poetic expressions of a smile that curls in tandem with the trickling of a tear. To say that it's the best thing Pixar has ever done may be underselling it. This is an exquisite expression of emotion so simultaneously literal and abstract that it feels like Pixar, maker of so many supposed "masterpieces", has not only dared itself to be better, not only willed itself to be greater, but succeeded in reaching to infinity and beyond, where the animation medium may never be the same, so perfectly has its power now been harnessed.