Even when they aren’t exactly on point, Pixar’s films are still amongst the most fascinating and engaging of animated films. At their worst, they look terrific and move with great wit and energy. At their best though, they are something else entirely - a kind of cinematic miracle that leaves all artifice and technical wizardry behind to tell stories powerfully human, and often from the most unexpected places. At their best, toys send you to infinity and beyond, superheroes make you invincible, fish touch your soul, rats make you dream and robots break your heart. And now, in the hands of Oscar-winner Pete Doctor (director of ‘Monsters Inc.’ and the now-legendary ‘Up!’), they’ve delivered another miracle in one of their most complex, emotional and heartwarming films yet.
The central focus of ‘Inside Out’ is a young girl named Riley (Kaitlyn Dias). When her loving parents move her to San Francisco, Riley feels displaced and confused, suddenly not in control of her emotions. And it's her emotions through which we observe all this, five emotions to be exact - Joy (Amy Poehler), Sadness (Phyllis Smith), Anger (Lewis Black), Fear (Bill Hader) and Disgust (Mindy Kaling). From the command centre inside Riley’s mind, they keep everything in balance, until an accident finds Joy and Sadness separated from the others. With Riley starting to spin out of control, Joy and Sadness are in a race against time to get back to the control centre and get everything back to normal.
This is complex material for any film let alone one specifically targeted at children, but this is Pixar we’re dealing with, and Doctor and his team somehow manage to weave this complexity into a wildly imaginative, wonderfully funny and immensely heartfelt dream of a film. Bursting with colour and wit, ‘Inside Out’ somehow manages to filter down the dense psychological material into a story and characters so accessible and loveable, it’s preposterous. It’s hard to even pinpoint exactly what it is that makes the film work so well, because every single element is in perfect balance. In fact, it’s hard to even critique it because there’s nothing to critique - like ‘WALL-E’, ‘Finding Nemo’ and ‘The Incredibles’, ‘Inside Out’ is a perfect film from beginning to end.
Every detail of the world Doctor and his team have developed has been thought through to a staggering degree - every time you think you’re ahead of them, that they’ve neglected some important psychological aspect of childhood, it appears in a way you never would have expected. The five emotions alone are marvels of characterisation, from their simple and vibrant design to the beautiful voice performances behind them. Each is a physical and aural representation of that emotion, and are so perfectly crafted that they cause you to laugh yourself silly and cringe in understanding at the same time. As Riley becomes even more displaced, so does the world of the emotions, and like the best of Pixar, what begins as a giddy, hilarious and breathtaking optimism begins to spiral towards disaster. You know that every person in the audience is holding on for this ride, because what the team behind the film have done is tapped into the fundamentals of being a child - not some saccharine daydream but the ups and downs, the complications and enigmas, the fierce determination and crippling fear and overwhelming confusion.
Bursting with colour and wit, ‘Inside Out’ somehow manages to filter down the dense psychological material into a story and characters so accessible and loveable, it’s preposterous.
I’ve gone on about the ideas and themes of the film, but ‘Inside Out’ is just as much a masterful technical achievement. Ralph Eggleston’s production design is just so goddamn wonderful, bursting with pastels and brimming with so much detail and so many hidden jokes that you get exhausted just trying to take them all in. Like the narrative, everything is considered and pitched perfectly for maximum effect and entertainment. And that’s another marvel of ‘Inside Out’. Even though its material is complex and often tough-going, the film never ceases to be entertaining and magical from beginning to end. Every ounce of comedy in the emotions is wrung out, which is all the easier when you have such a staggering ensemble of comedic talent involved. Every voice actor is absolutely perfect for their assigned role, and committed to the heart and conceit of the film. Michael Giacchino, who has composed a staggering four major scores this year, crafts another classic for his mature and simple score for this film, which only adds to its heartfelt simplicity. You leave ‘Inside Out’ practically floating. It’s an emotionally exhausting experience, and the third act of the film is up there with the most emotional and powerful moments of their best films, but the cumulative effect is so life-affirming and optimistic that you can’t help but beam through the tears.
‘Inside Out’ is a masterpiece, the return to form for Pixar we have been waiting for. I also think it’s Pete Doctor’s finest film, more mature than ‘Monsters Inc’ and more structurally sound than ‘Up!’, and both of those films are staggering enough to begin with. But this film pulls off miracle after miracle, not just as a piece of filmmaking but as an experience. This is a film truly for all ages and all backgrounds, because it looks at what fundamentally makes us human beings, and in such a simple, elegant and entertaining way. It’s a classic in every sense of the word, and deserves a place next to the finest animated films in the canon.