It’s been two years since the under-rated Monsters University, the last Pixar film to be released until Inside Out, and it’s good to finally have a new one. (In theory, we also get Pixar’s The Good Dinosaur this year around Thanksgiving.) This latest film is directed by Pete Docter, who also directed Up and Monsters Inc, as well as being one of the writers of the original Toy Story and Toy Story 2.
To top it all off, Inside Out is the highest ranked Pixar movie on IMDB and the second highest animated film overall (behind Miyazaki’s Spirited Away), though that’ll probably settle in the coming months, and was the second highest ranked Pixar movie on Rotten Tomatoes (behind Toy Story 2), though it has already settled there into sixth place (behind the Toy Story trilogy, Finding Nemo and Up).
That’s a lot of hype to live up to.
The Boy was not blown away, however, at least in part because he has very high standards for Pixar films. But there may be other reasons, as well.
The story is a sort of coming-of-age: An 11-year-old girl named Riley has lead a largely joyful life in Minnesota, when her parents relocate the family to San Francisco in a fairly disastrous (for a kid) move. She struggles with her loss, her loneliness, and the pressure to stay upbeat through all this while, you know, being a pre-teen.
The twist is classic Pixar: Most of the movie’s focus is inside Riley’s head, where little entities representing five emotions (joy, sadness, fear, anger and disgust) themselves struggle over who gets to control Riley’s outward state, with Joy (Amy Poehler) being the main driver and Sadness (Phyllis Smith) being the misunderstood outcast.
This is similar to the premise of the not-well-remembered Fox sitcom “Herman’s Head"—but Toy Story was hardly the first to posit a universe where toys were alive. (It was a common cartoon subject back in the ‘30s.) Furthermore, much like Toy Story, there’s no way this premise holds up under serious scrutiny, just from a philosophical level. (I mean, think about it: The vast majority of toys are unloved in a landfill, which would make for an entirely different movie.)
It is, however, an amazingly well-constructed aesthetic representation of things that’s useful for telling a story.
Here, our Emotion-people are looking out for Riley, but they’re not really aware of how anything works, or what’s going on. The way it seems to work is that the five big guys sit in headquarters determining how Riley reacts, which in turn creates memories.
Memories have various purposes: Most are put in to long term storage, but some are used to create "islands” which are focal points of Riley’s personality. There’s a family island, a friendship island, an honesty island, a hockey island (she’s from Minnesota, she plays hockey), and so on.
A few memories are “core” memories, and these apparently determine who Riley is, emotionally. Under Joy’s watchful hand, those memories are all happy. The story really gets going when Sadness starts going around touching all the memories, including some core ones. In the struggle to reclaim them, Joy and Sadness end up getting sucked out of HQ into long-term memory.
And the movie becomes a road trip at that point, with Joy and Sadness wandering around Riley’s mind, encountering people, getting lost in abstract thought, riding the train of thought, avoiding the memory dumb (where memories go to die).
Actually, it’s a lot like Toy Story in structure, when you think about it. Which is not a bad thing.
Inside Out plays to virtually all Pixar’s strengths. It’s gorgeous, of course, occasionally bordering on the photorealistic. I had a jarring moment when we switched from inside Riley’s head to out, where she’s playing hockey. Although Pixar stays well away from the uncanny valley by keeping the faces of their humans sufficiently cartoon-y, there’s a moment in the hockey game were you don’t see faces that looks for a moment like video of a real game.
But the fantastic premise allows them to make arbitrarily beautiful things. The Emotions themselves are fuzzy around the edges. The memories glow in vibrant colors. The “abstract thought” sequence allows them to play with perspective.
The bar is so high for Pixar here, you’d be disappointed if it were anything less than dazzling.
What’s more Pixar was founded on emotion. Lasseter rejected the “tough, edgy” Toy Story premise that (IIRC) Katzenberg tried to foist on him, and went for a story about toys with human frailties and feelings. So a movie that directly deals with feelings and expression is square in their wheelhouse.
And the road trip allows them to make so many funny and poignant moments which hit parents probably harder than kids. Growing up is kind of a loss for parents, after all: You have these things that depend on you and bring you joy (and frustration, of course) and you get attached to their whimsy, their little joys, and you want to protect them from all the bad stuff.
Which, of course, you can’t. And really shouldn’t. And that’s really what this movie is about.
And that brings me back to The Boy, and the other reason I think he didn’t like this as much as I did. He has no experience with this. Parts of it must seem silly and sentimental to him, and he is fundamentally unsentimental (as I was at his age).
Do I think it’s a bit overhyped? Yeah, probably. For various reasons, we saw it without The Flower and The Barbarienne, though, and I’ll happily go see it again.