It’s been two years since Pixar’s last film. While Monsters University garnered positive reviews, it was never going to reach the levelof enthusiasm we were used to from the studio. It seems shocking to say, but it does feel like the best years of Pixar may be behind us. Certainly we can expect great things in the future, but it would be near impossible to match the whirlwind of sweeping critical and general acclaim its films have received. Finding Nemo, Toy Story et al, The Incredibles and (most of) the rest are household names and swelled our screens with touching and (sometimes) inspirational flicks. With a recent foray into sequelization, less interesting characters, stiffer competition, and leaking talent, the studio has hit a bit of a rough patch. Let’s be clear, this is a relative rough patch. Most studios would die for the 78% RT rating and $270 million profit Monsters University. But those numbers fall short of the Pixar standard. With two films slated for release this year, the studio seems primed for a rebound.
I’ve had the release date for Inside Out marked on my calendar for months. The excitement comes from many places with casting topping the list. The film collects a small cadre of television stars to play what amounts to caricatures of themselves. They each portray a personification of an emotion that impacts how a young girl named Riley responds to the world around her. Joy, played by Amy Poehler, was the first emotion to arrive and comes into existence just as Riley is born. As Riley grows, new emotions come to help direct her state of mind. Fear (Bill Hader) keeps Riley safe and urges caution in new situations, like bypassing an electrical cord tripwire. Disgust (Mindy Kaling) helps avoid poisons like broccoli. Anger (Lewis Black) takes over when her parents threaten to hold out on dessert. The final Emotion, Sadness (Phyllis Smith), doesn’t have quite as clear of a role. Joy works to keep Riley as happy as possible, diplomatically keeping the other Emotions in check and relegating Sadness to reading instruction manuals on long-term memory storage protocols.
Joy has everything under control until Sadness accidentally tampers with Riley’s core memories. Soon Joy and Sadness find themselves thrown out of the Command Center and embark on a quest to return. While Fear, Disgust, and Anger struggle to guide Riley, Joy and Sadness follow a typical Pixarian route back, encountering unique characters living in Riley’s mind including her imaginary friend Bing Bong, imaginary hair-flipping boyfriends (“I would die for Riley!”), and a memory deletion team that removes faded memories like city trash collectors. Bing Bong (a mix of cat, dolphin, elephant, and cotton candy) provides one of the most touching arcs from the movie. In many ways, Bing Bong’s mini arc mirrors the progression Joy follows as she learns to make space for Sadness and the other Emotions.
The arc Joy follows as she fights to maintain her importance in Riley’s life mirrors the path Woody takes in Toy Story. In that first Pixar film, Woody fights to retain his title of “Andy’s favorite toy” in the face of the arrival of Buzz Lightyear. Early in the film an accident sends Woody and Buzz out of Andy’s room and they follow their own Odyssey back to Andy. Along the way, Woody realizes that he and Buzz can coexist to make Andy happy. This overall arc is essentially the same as Joy and Sadness. Woody and Joy struggle to cede space to Buzz and Sadness. The pairs are thrown from their comfortable world and follow a quest back and learn similar lessons along the way.
Some of the other beats in Inside Out share similarities with other Pixar films. In a way, Joy follows a path similar to Marlin in Finding Nemo. She is a pseudo-parent to Riley and learns to “let go.” Even with these narrative arcs, Inside Out feels markedly less like a Pixar film then its counterparts. In many ways it is shares narrative arcs with Frozen, looks like Wreck-It Ralph, and has The LEGO Movie tones. Frozen deals mainly with the relationship between two sisters. Wreck-it Ralph’s Sugar Land looks remarkably like Inside Out‘s Imagination Land and other areas of Riley’s mind. And the live action arc in The LEGO movie, different in plot and details, feels like the growth of Riley as a girl herself. Inside Out is still full of Pixarisms like the Fish-aholics Anonymous in Finding Nemo and the Potato Head jokes in Toy Story. But it is dialogue heavy with fewer quiet moments especially compared to newer films like WALL-E and Up. This isn’t necessarily a problem. Amy Poehler, Lewis Black and Phyllis Smith hold it down with excellent performances. Poehler uses the mania and tenderness she showed in “Parks and Recreation” to provide the emotional depth needed to bridge the character’s path from overly-protective and isolating to redemptive and inclusive. Likewise, Phyllis Smith gives Sadness the range to help us understand what she battles with as Riley’s less appetizing emotions. If anything, the dialogue heavy, more abstract world is a welcome addition to the Pixar catalog.
I imagine any similarities between Inside Out and Frozen, Wreck-It Ralph, and The LEGO Movie are due to intrinsic genre traits. Animated movies tend to deal in redemption and family. Inside Out hits all those tones near-perfectly which is something we’ve come to expect from Pixar. The movie plays out a bit predictably but no more than most animated movies. And in the genre we don’t necessarily need surprises. What we don’t want is staleness. Luckily, Inside Out is one of the funniest and most refreshing films in the Pixar canon and has led to an explosion of excitement around the studio hotter than Anger’s head at the thought of broccoli .