Inside Out: How Pixar got its Groove Back

INSIDE OUT – Pictured (L-R): Fear, Joy, and Disgust. ©2015 Disney•Pixar. All Rights Reserved.

The last couple years have been a bit rough on Pixar, the prestigious animation studio which has spent the last two decades plucking our heart strings and hogging all the animation Oscars. (Including the ones they didn’t deserve. Looking at you, Ratatouille) After Brave came out to middling reviews, production on what was to be their next feature, The Good Dinosaur, suffered several stalls and delays. But with the recent release of Inside Out, Pixar is finally back, storming across the animated landscape like the Riders of friggin’ Rohan. And let me just be the latest in a long succession of people to say Christ Alive, it’s good to have you guys back.

Inside Out is about as monumental a return to form as Pixar fans were hoping for. It’s a film that exemplifies everything that made the studio great: stunning animation, emotional complexity, narrative depth, and jokes more legitimately funny and clever than anything you’ll find in any of the supposedly ‘adult’ comedies plaguing theaters right now.

Inside Out posterInside Out stars the anthropomorphised emotions of a pre-teen girl named Riley, who live inside Riley’s adorable little noggin dictating her thoughts and actions. There’s Joy, the bubbly, perky lead (Amy Poehler), the downbeat Sadness (Phyllis Smith), the snooty Disgust (Mindy Kaling), Nervous Fear (Bill Hader) and angry… Anger (Lewis Black). When Riley and her family are moved to a new town, Riley’s “core memories,” the glowing spheres that drive her personality, are lost, sending Joy and Sadness on an adventure to get them back and return the now depressed and unstable Riley to normal.

Inside Out, as a lot of people have pointed out already, hits a lot of familiar spots on the old Pixar bingo card. A character who symbolizes a child’s childhood innocence threatened by the encroaching onset of maturity? Check. A bickering duo cast out of their natural environment and forced to learn to co-exist? Check. Themes of personal loss and abandonment? Oh, lordy that’s a check. Really, the only thing that keeps it being the most quintessentially Pixar movie ever is the lack of the patent-pending “Manic third act chase sequence.”

But as much as we like to smugly point out Pixar’s favorite recurring motifs and ideas, it’s also impossible not to love them, and Inside Out is proof. Just TRY not to laugh at the clever, subtle “this one’s for the grown-ups” jokes (“I saw one really hairy guy, he looked like a bear”) and while you’re at it, try not to cry at the emotionally devastating Second Act finale. Yes, these are well-worn conventions, but remember that Pixar has been using them so often that at this point they wield those conventions like Inigo Montoya wields a fencing foil. And the six-fingered man? That’s you. Prepare to feel things.

But what leaped out at me, what I think Inside Out does better than perhaps any other Pixar movie before, is the baffling amount of respect it has for its audience, especially when it comes to the finale. Inside Out is built around a very simple, very powerful central idea, and no I’m not going to spoil it. It’s the lesson that both Joy and Riley have to learn as part of their respective but intrinsically linked emotional journeys.

Inside out insert

What’s great, for me at least, isn’t as much the message itself as the fact that the characters, and by extension the film, never completely spell it out. Nobody has any tearful monologues where they reiterate the lesson they’ve learned and apologize for the mistakes they’ve made. The film, instead, trusts us to understand what’s going on through contextual clues and simple observations.

When the climax comes, Joy never once says the words “I’m sorry”, or elaborates on what she’s sorry for. She doesn’t need to, because the film knows that the audience already understands what’s going on with her, character-wise. We know what lesson she’s learned and how she’s grown as a character, and so do the other characters in the film. It’s non-verbal communication of ideas, themes and character growth. In a film aimed primarily at children, this kind of refusal to talk down to or hold the audiences hand, carefully guiding them to the central message of the film like an overly-cautious tour guide, is so much rare than it should be.

If there’s any one thing I can fault Inside Out for it’s that among the cast, Mindy Kaling’s Disgust feels notably under-used. Her fellow supporting cast members, Anger and Fear, get their share of gags and even whole scenes to make them stand out as characters. They get clear roles to play in the narrative. Disgust just sorta seems to be there to sneer and make sarcastic remarks. She’s fun, but I kept finding myself asking why she was there. She’s like Predator 2 or funnel cake sticks. Enjoyably, but not especially necessary.

I realize that not every supporting character can have time to get their moment in the sun, but Disgust feels she’s the only notable player in the film who gets short-changed, and in an otherwise terrifically well-rounded cast, that hurts, especially since Kaling’s considerable talent feels somewhat wasted.

But that’s me grasping, really. Inside Out is the film Pixar fans have been waiting for since the closing credits of Toy Story 3. Where Cars 2 felt shallow and commercial and Brave solid but uneven, Inside Out is everything Pixar have made us come to expect from their work. Visually stunning, complex, funny, and with the feeling that the writing has become even more mature and complex than ever.

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