When it comes to describing the frequently brilliant output of Pixar Studios, filmgoers generally don’t shy away from superlatives. Wether praising the beauty of their animation, marveling at how their stories appeal to all ages, or being dazzled by their seemingly instinctive knowledge of how to tug on heart strings, you’d be hard-pressed to find a single movie buff who isn’t impressed by their magical twenty year run. One aspect I’d argue is a tad under-discussed is their staggering level of ambition; this is, after all, the same group that dared to spin the first half of their dystopia epic Wall-e into a comedy from the silent film era, not to mention drawing enough tears in first ten minutes of Up to turn California green again. The seemingly effortless manner in which they present their art can often mask the bravery inherent to its undertaking. It’s been three years since their last original film (and five since their last good one), a span that has led audiences to wonder wether these storytelling savants might have finally run out of mold-shattering modern classics. If Inside Out tells us anything, it’s that John Lassiter and friends have heard your complaints loud and clear; Pixar’s latest is their most ambitious entry to date, and it’s not especially close.
Charting the inner-workings of an 11-year-old girl named Riley, Inside Out employs five personified human emotions as its central characters: Joy, Anger, Disgust, Fear, and Sadness. The quintet work together in the control room of the preteen’s brain, each taking the reins in situations that befit their specific paradigms. The team is led by Joy, a radiant Tinker Bell descendant who prioritizes her effect on the girl’s mind to that of the other, more negative emotions. Their steady grip on Riley’s mental state is loosened finger by finger when the girl’s father lands a job in San Francisco, forcing the family to relocate from their beloved Minnesota. A squabble in head quarters finds both Joy and Sadness thrown into the depths of long-term memory and subconsciousness, leaving Riley with only Disgust, Fear, and Anger to navigate her new surroundings until the remainder of the team returns.
The embodiment of key emotions is far from the only aspect of the human brain that the film seeks to literalize. Memories are imagined as glittering orbs that are harvested and stored according to their importance. Entire islands are erected in the name of Riley’s most prominent interests and intrinsic priorities. There’s even a moment when Joy and Sadness pass through the girl’s abstract thoughts in order to board the Train of Consciousness, on which they sort through boxes labeled ‘facts,’ and, ‘opinions.’ It’s heady stuff, and while Pixar films have always managed to leave a lasting impact on kids and adults alike, Inside Out is their first to do so on two completely disparate levels. The children in my theater appeared genuinely charmed by the picture’s manic physical comedy, as well as concerned during moments of peril, but the divide between their understanding of the film and that of their chaperones was palpable from first frame to last. Kid pics like Shrek and Shark’s Tale have managed this trick on a purely comedic level, but their narratives played the same for grown-ups as they did little ones. Inside Out is essentially two different movies playing at the same time, and the sure-handed way it accomplishes this feat is as bold as it is unique.
Though I loved charting every movement in the film's endless metaphor, I couldn't help but wonder if children might actually understand the flick better than adults. Those fascinated by the infinite corridors and machinations of the human brain (see: almost everyone) will find it difficult to pay the purest off attention to the narrative at hand, and, like Sadness herself, might prefer to explore the the nooks and cockles of the movie's richly imagined mind. A sturdy amount of my time in the theater was spent wondering what would happen if both Joy and Sadness were lost forever in the subconscious, not to mention the effects of the catastrophic damage they seemingly cause with their every move. Are we witnessing concussions, moments of mental scaring, or just mental growth through destruction of the old guard? It's likely all three and more, and while the film is replete with intellectual intrigue, the mental gymnastics it inspires can sometimes distract from the picture's beating heart, as well as the events at hand.
If this reads as a complaint that the movie simply has too many strong elements to keep track of in its brisk 94 minute runtime, that's because it is. Inside Out marks Pete Doctor's third Pixar outing to date, and while his latest isn't as visually dynamic as the delightful, imaginative Monster's Inc., or as purely emotional as the heart-breaking, life-affirming Up, it manages to retain all those same elements, and tether them to the studio's most daring entry to date. He deserves the attention shown to studio stablemates John Lassiter, Andrew Stanton, and Brad Bird, and in collaborating with Meg LeFauve and Josh Cooley, he might very well have created the first screenplay for an animated feature to be a front runner at the Oscars. This marks the second straight week in which a near-irrefutable crowd pleaser is being judged unfairly against a modern classic, and while comparing Jurassic World to Spielberg's game-changing original strikes me as particularly unreasonable, expecting every movie to be Toy Story or Wall-e is similarly unjust. Inside Out is a mind-bending adventure that will make kids laugh, parents cry, and prompt psychology professors to add a slap-stick comedy film to their syllabi. Don't call it a comeback; Pixar's been here for years.