Inside Out: A Welcome Return to Form for Pixar

Pixar's latest film is one of its best, and most ambitious, to date.                  (Pictures:  Credit - Disney Pixar)Pixar's latest film is one of its best, and most ambitious, to date. (Pictures: Credit - Disney Pixar)
by Steve Hanley, Editor

by Steve Hanley, Editor

I’ve spent the last few weeks eagerly awaiting the release of Inside Out. Unfortunately, as with many animated films, its release date in Ireland was several weeks after its American release date. I spent those weeks watching Youtube reviews and reading all kinds of opinions of the film online, and growing more and more impatient. Maybe this film would mark Pixar’s return to form.

The good news is that Inside Out was certainly worth the wait.

Pixar are very much playing to their strengths with this film. They’re doing what they do best. It feels like they made an effort to focus on what it is that people love about their films. It has an original high concept, a flawed yet lovable protagonist, and there’s a good chance that it will make you cry.

Interesting high concepts have always been a Pixar staple. The worlds they created in films like Toy Story, Monsters Inc. and Wall-E were wonderfully detailed. And Inside Out is perhaps their most ambitious concept yet.

For those of you who haven’t seen the movie – and have somehow managed to avoid the trailers – Inside Out is about the voices inside a person’s head. Or more specifically the emotions that control their actions. There are five central emotions in the film, each depicted as a separate character:  Joy, Sadness, Fear, Disgust and Anger. Together they are tasked with guiding the 11-year old Riley through her relocation to San Francisco.

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As an aside, I found myself wondering if the relocation aspect of the film might have been inspired by Spirited Away, another great animated film from Studio Ghibli. It also begins with an 11 year old girl moving to a new home.

Many have pointed out that the concept has been explored before, most notably in the early 90s Fox sitcom Herman’s Head. But while the ideas are similar, Inside Out explores the concept in much greater detail within its two hour run time. It also deals with the concept with more nuance and sophistication, despite being aimed partially at small children. This film is by no means a rip off; this is indeed fresh territory, particularly for an animated picture.

Maybe the most wonderful thing about the movie is that we are constantly learning more about this world; each new area and system within Riley’s brain provides further insight into how she’s feeling and how human emotion works in general. The way in which the filmmakers continue to add detail to this rich world throughout the course of the film is simply exhilarating.

Inside Out also provides what I believe is a very healthy perspective on emotion, and it’s wonderful that so many children are being exposed to this perspective. Without spoiling too much about the plot, one of the ultimate takeaways of the film is that every emotion has its purpose, and it’s okay to not be happy 100% of the time. It’s a healthy attitude to have towards emotion. The film also depicts depression as something entirely separate from sadness, which I consider an extremely important distinction.

The screenwriters must have put a staggering amount of work into expressing all of these complex ideas, and the rewards are there for all to see. If there’s a problem with the way these concepts are explored in the film, it’s that some of the ideas are so intellectual that it makes it more difficult to become immersed in the story.

It’s not that the ideas are difficult to understand – even young children should be able to follow most of what is happening. But I found the ideas themselves so worthy of consideration that it took a little longer to grow attached to the characters and lose myself in the story. But by the second half of the film, I had been sucked in completely.

As mentioned previously, the cast is largely made up of Riley’s core emotions. Each of these characters are instantly recognisable by their appearance and personality. There are a number of other characters found outside of the ‘control room’, in the recesses of Riley’s mind. Actors play out fantastical scenarios in her dreams while she’s asleep. Manual labourers make space in her long term memory by deleting facts that she no longer needs.

Then there’s Riley herself, along with the rest of her family. While Inside Out mostly focuses on the figures inside Riley’s head, we do see enough of the human characters to sympathise with them and develop a connection with them. One of the many unconventional things about the movie is that the main characters are never really in any danger. The tension is derived from the threat of Riley herself succumbing to depression. This could be considered one of the film’s weaknesses, but personally I thought this was more than enough to drive the film. And I actually appreciated the stakes being as personal as one person’s mental health.

Lewis Black as 'Anger'

Lewis Black as ‘Anger’

The movie did make me cry at a couple of different points, which I’m not afraid to admit. I’m a softie when it comes to some of these animated films. Some of the most touching moments caught me by surprise. Pixar really know how to pull at your heartstrings, even when you’re least expecting it. The film isn’t quite the emotional rollercoaster that Up was though. If you’re intent on keeping the waterworks at bay, you’ll probably manage it. Unless you’re particularly susceptible to getting weepy at the cinema.

The animation in the film isn’t anything you haven’t seen before, though that doesn’t mean it’s not aesthetically pleasing. This kind of computer animation has been used to better effect in other movies, including some of the more recent Disney efforts. But where the visuals shine is in the creative layout of Riley’s mind. The various constructs making up this bizarre landscape are a real visual treat, but they’re not rendered with any real flair or style.

The score is more interesting: there is a dreamy quality to the music that plays inside the control room that really helps to set the tone. The score is so non-invasive that you might not even notice it, but don’t be surprised if you find yourself humming a few notes on the way home from the theatre.

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Inside Out is a complete victory for Pixar. Since Toy Story 3, many had felt that their standards had declined. Their reputation was not quite as bulletproof as it had once been. At the same time, other animation studios had been raising their game, threatening to knock Pixar from their position at the top of the mountain. But with Inside Out the studio proved that they are still more than capable of making excellent, creative animated films.

I don’t consider this the best film that Pixar have released to date. That title still belongs to Up, in my humble opinion. But this is certainly in the upper tier. Others may disagree, but that’s the beauty of Pixar Studios. They have so many quality titles that everyone has their own favourite.

If you haven’t seen this film yet, then I’d encourage you to do so. If you are a fan of animated movies at all, you’re almost sure to enjoy this one. Inside Out has something for everyone, whether you’re five years old or eighty five years old. And even the oldest and wisest of us can probably learn a lot from it.

RATING (out of 100): 89, “Exceptional”

Steve Hanley is an editor and co-founder of NovaCritic.com.