It’s been five long years and three mediocre products since Pixar unleashed the beloved Toy Story 3, and years of bated breathe have contribution to the hot anticipation of their first original effort since 2012’s problematic Brave. The titanic mummer of Pixar’s throbbing heartbeat has been notably muted and palpably chunky over the last half-decade – the result of Disney dollars hierarchized above lush originality and narrative fervor. But with Inside Out, the Docter is in. Stethoscopes have been administered, a double bypass has been performed, the blockage has been loosened. In one fell blow, Pete Docter has served up a whopping Pixar masterpiece and restored the animation studio’s name to its former glory. All hail the king. All hail the Docter.
Over the years, Pixar Studios have succeed most when playing tour guide, taking us on journeys through unknown worlds. The verdant tapestry of Paradise Falls, the sprawling, intricate machinery of Monsteropolis, the thriving underground of Remy’s Muridae Rattus colony, the orchestral reaches of outer space, the toy chest sans a watchful human eye. From Toy Story to Wall-E, the creative geniuses at Pixar have baked up whip-smart environs to loose their creations within, with equal detail paid to the playground and the players. Their artistic pursuit is just as concerned with world building as they are with character building; and unlike disposal superhero films, at Pixar, world building actually means something. It can be substantial and yet singular. It doesn’t require franchising so much as articulation. Upon stepping into it and figuring out how fingering a lever here launches a rocket a block away, we realize the fine-tuned machine that is Inside Out’s decadent, butterfly-effected macrocosm. Quite simply, this is world building done right.
And getting the habitat right is an absolute necessity for a film like Inside Out that relies so heavily on grounding the wild abstraction that is its plot.
Inside Riley’s (Kaitlyn Dias) head live a diverse team of Emotions. Joy (Amy Poehler) had the run of the place for a whole 32 seconds before Sadness (Phyllis Smith) arrived on the scene to turn things blue (literally) and transform Riley’s cackle into a caterwaul. In no time, Disgust (Mindy Kaling), Anger (Lewis Black) and Fear (Bill Hader) enter the equation, each doing their part to dictate Riley’s complex symphony of emotional responses. A Star Trek-ian control board, webs of recall tubes and a core memory storage bank all provide the appropriate visual framework to conceptualize such philosophical musings, giving needed visual definition to the “why we do what we do” question. The concept in and of itself sounds unwieldy and potentially convoluted, making its ultimate cohesion and coherency all the more jaw-droppingly impressive.
In making Riley and her brainfolk work in concert, a handshake is established where the actions of each dictate changes in the other’s universe. When Riley moves to the big city and is forced to introduce herself to her new class (much to Fear’s lament), her emotions scramble to “feed” her the right memories to get through the moment. To her class, Riley gabs openly on memories of family and hockey before they (and she) turn blue. When Riley later makes pivotal decisions, they cause irreversible circuit changes within the ecosphere of the Emotions, literally altering the landscape of their world, crumbling pathways and jettisoning the Train of Thought. Which, if you were wondering, is an actual train in Inside Out‘s world. Its cause and effect to an exacting and yet chaotic degree and its execution is little short of brilliant.
The introduction and arc of a character named Bing Bong (Richard Kind) speaks to Inside Out’s shocking emotional potency. Bing Bong, a half-elephant, half-cat, half-dolphin made up of cotton candy and tear ducts that ejaculate plastic-wrapped confectioneries, serves to highlight the dueling nature of Inside Out’s metaphysical core. On the surface, Bing Bong is all silly voices, bright lights and popping colors; the ideal surrogate prop for little kiddies with big imaginations. For adults though, there is heart-rending accuracy to this imagery friend in that he represents the metaphorical death of our childhood inclinations. A scene involving Bing Bong’s Rainbow Flyer and shooting the moon turned me to mush not once but both times I saw the film.
And though Inside Out might just result in adult male’s tear ducts malfunctioning, it’ll also spur an astonishing amount of laugh-out-loud moments. A recurring “Triple-dent Gum” jingle gets exponentially more laughs the more it doubles back and little bits involving the migratory memory dump workers – “Get rid of the piano lessons, but let’s keep Chopsticks and Heart and Soul” – ring true on a level that you might have assumed was intimate to just you. In finding the universality of these specific moments, the screenwriting team of Docter, co-director Ronnie del Carmen, Pixar regular Josh Cooley and newbie Meg LeFauve have exploited parts of our selves we’ve forgotten about or don’t dare reveal. So while it’ll work for the kids on a very basic “lights! noises! colors!” level, it’s the adults in the audience who are privy to the real treat.
As much as Inside Out is a technical triumph, it crumbles to mush without the wildly inventive, carefully constructed blueprint at its center. Thankfully, the work done on the page is as inspired as the best of them; just another part of the many triumphs that go into making Inside Out. From Michael Giacchino’s playful, even touching score – one that pairs spritely xylophones and blithe piano runs with bereaved french horns as auditory stand-ins for the head-butting of Joy and Sadness – to Poehler’s effervescent, impossibly-bubbly voice work, Inside Out soars as a behind-the-scenes endeavor as well.
A last act reunion once again turned my face soggy, leaving me all the more inclined to stick through the (increasingly hysterical) mid-credits stinger that dives into the inner-workings of the brains of cats and dogs. Improbably, it’s a film that improves upon multiple screenings (I’ve seen it twice and would happy digest again) because there’s just so much going on at any given moment that you’re scrambling to catch all the “intended for adults” jokes. And to its credit, this is a film that will, almost lmagically, play even better with adults than children. It’s rare that a film can have you cackling, gut you raw, and then force you to look at yourself in a whole new night. Inside Out is that film. The holy communion that Pixar fanboys were hoping it would be, Docter’s third Pixar effort stands amongst the upper echelon of Pixar’s massively impressive top shelf products and is all but destined to only grow better with age.