When critics began hailing Pixar’s Inside Out as an instant classic at last month’s Cannes premiere, it was almost too much to hope for. It’s been two years since the studio’s last release and—if we’re honest—a few more since their last quality feature. Not that Pixar is capable of making a “bad” film, of course, but their most recent streak hasn’t exactly reached the high standard we’ve come to know and love about them.
Thankfully, Inside Out is every bit the classic it aims to be. It’s the best Pixar movie since Toy Story 3, which feels appropriate given the similarities between the two. The films both explore what it’s like to grow up. They both explore the feeling that comes with finding yourself in unfamiliar territory. And both do so with an incredible amount of pathos.
Inside Out revolves around an eleven-year-old girl named Riley whose family moves from Minnesota to San Francisco. Inside her head live a few basic emotions—Joy, Fear, Anger, Disgust, and Sadness—tasked with the responsibility of keeping Riley functioning and out of harm’s way. Riley’s move throws the five of them for a loop, as she struggles to maintain her identity and relationships in the face of this new challenge.
If all of this sounds a bit more conceptual than your average kid’s movie, that’s probably because it is. Inside Out takes abstract characteristics of the human mind like personality, memory, and the subconscious, and turns them into something tangible. In one case, it even goes so far as to explore the realm of “abstract thought,” one of the movie’s most fun moments.
Things like this can make the story seem a little more complicated than typical Pixar fare, but never to the point where it’s confusing or boring. It doesn’t strive to oversimplify the landscape of the mind either. Like any good animated film, the kids will be fascinated while the adults leave the theater with plenty to think about.This is especially true of the movie’s broader themes. Don’t let the bright colors or shiny advertising fool you—Inside Out deals with a lot of sadness. Or Sadness, I should say. Though Amy Poehler’s Joy is the central protagonist here, you might find that Sadness steals the show more often than expected. Voiced by The Office’s Phyllis Smith, Sadness takes the form of a sensitive, turtleneck-wearing character who provides a lot of the movie’s laughs. Yet she’s also integral to many of the film’s more important moments.
This makes sense when you consider that Riley is just beginning her transition from youth into adulthood. It’s a confusing time where emotions aren’t so black and white anymore, and happy memories become tinged with a hint of longing. To top it off, she’s been uprooted from her home in Minnesota and faced with a completely foreign environment. There’s an inherent sadness that comes with growing up, and Inside Out captures it perfectly.
In a less intelligent movie, Sadness might be characterized by a hulking monster with the malicious intent of sucking up everyone’s life force. Here, Sadness is just the opposite. It’s actually pretty . . . normal. It’s okay at times. And though we all have sad memories, those same memories can often be beautiful and meaningful and deeply formative. Pete Docter, the film’s director, manages to convey this without ever getting too dark or grim, but he doesn’t ever try to downplay the importance of sad feelings.
That’s one of the great things about Pixar—instead of shying away from these more serious issues, they face them head-on. If a character feels something real, they’re not going to try to laugh it off like another movie might. And Docter is no stranger to pulling on our heartstrings—he did the same thing in the first fifteen minutes of Up, with unforgettable results. Just be sure you have the tissues on hand this time around.All of this makes Inside Out one of Pixar’s more complex and weighty films—more so than some grownup films I’ve seen recently. It’s not like the oversimplified message of a lot of kid’s movies, where happiness is the ultimate goal in every situation. Instead, joy and sadness live together, side by side, alongside all of our other emotions. Most of the younger crowd isn’t going to pick up on everything here, but they’ll enjoy it nonetheless.
The film’s characters are some of Pixar’s best to date. Joy is a bundle of positive energy who never feels too over-the-top. Richard Kind’s character Bing Bong is the perfect addition, a vaudevillian type character striving for relevance as Riley’s imaginary friend, despite her looming adulthood. And then there are the emotions in other people’s heads, which we occasionally get a glimpse of in hilarious fashion.
Everything about this movie just works. From the opening strains of the soundtrack to the detailed animation in every inch of scenery, Inside Out is an absolute joy to behold. It’s thematically significant, beautifully written, and a whole lot of fun.
Pixar doesn’t get much better than this.