Pixar Studios has built itself a very strong resume over the years, becoming known as a place that champions well-crafted stories and original ideas. Their first film, Toy Story, has become a classic and launched CG-animated film standard that is heavily favored in cinemas today. Their early string of great films, however, has become slightly frayed over the last few years as they fell victim to the box-office allure of safe sequels. Pixar seemed to eschew their value of original story ideas in favor of retreading bankable characters. Now to be fair, Toy Story 2 and 3 are amazing films that I would regard as near-perfect sequels to the original in that they expanded the scope of world they had built while also deepening the characters who inhabited that world. Cars 2 and Monsters University, on the other hand, just seemed to be flights of fancy that existed for the sole purpose selling more merch. The stories were bland and lacked the depth that the previous films from Pixar were known for.
Somewhere in there, Pixar did try an original idea when they released Brave, but even that film just seemed to be missing something. That missing element may have been due to the troubled journey the film took to the screen which involved the director being fired midway through production. But to their credit, the studio did not give up and is now showing a renewed desire to create and not just to clone.
Which brings me to Inside Out, the newest Pixar film. This film comes to us from the mind of Minnesota-native Pete Docter, the man who also brought us the amazing Pixar film Up and the classic Monsters, Inc. Docter has shown that he can spin together amazingly creative concepts into deeply affecting stories. Everyone knows that the first 20 minutes of Up are some of the most emotionally resonant minutes ever animated. And the conclusion to Monsters, Inc. often gives me goosebumps (“Kitty!”). So you know that you’re going to get much more than a childish cartoon romp from Mr. Docter here too.
The concept of Inside Out is also unique. We meet a baby girl named Riley and are introduced to the 5 emotions that share control of her mind: Joy, Sadness, Fear, Disgust and Anger. Those 5 emotions watch Riley’s experiences unfold and decide which of them should take over the controls for which moments. As the film opens, we’re given a whirlwind tour of how all this works and how Riley’s mind isn’t just a control room, it’s a vast world of islands, bridges, trains, rooms, stages, and libraries.
Now Riley is 12 years old and has had a life full of joy and goofiness. She loves her family, her friends, her hockey team, and her home in Minnesota. Enter the central conflict: her family moves from Minnesota to San Francisco. Riley’s young life is thrown into chaos and her emotions struggle to cope with all the changes. Memories that once gave Riley joy, now seem to be getting tainted with sadness. The Joy character (voiced by Amy Pohler) has always been the de facto leader of the mind, but Sadness (voiced by the perfectly cast Phyllis Smith) feels compelled to become more active. The interplay between Joy and Sadness is what propels the story as they go on a quest to help Riley through this hardship. They are forced to traverse the wide world of Riley’s mind in order to get back to headquarters (get it?) and help their girl. Their journey takes them through many amazingly creative areas like The Dream Studios and Abstract Thought. They meet “mind workers” and other surprise characters along the way. They (and the audience) learn about many concepts of psychology as they pick their way through the twisty corridors of memories and ride the Train of Thought. It’s zany and wonderful and, above all, so clever.
It’s amazing, really, to see the mind of a young girl portrayed this way. You see how, when we’re young, our emotions are strong and don’t often work together well. We deal almost completely in absolutes, blacks and whites. As we grow up, our emotions settle in a bit and work together to build our personalities. Here, we see Riley’s pain as she struggles to grow up after having almost everything that previously defined her ripped away. Her friends are back in Minnesota, her hockey team is back in Minnesota and her parents are stressed and finding it hard to help their growing daughter cope. Meanwhile, in her mind, her emotions are fighting with each other, trying to figure out what they should do – how they should feel – about all of this. When everything is changing, what can they hang on to? What will Riley be like on the other side of this conflict? Will she stubbornly lash out and become a bitter young woman or will she face her fears and sadness and become stronger?
Inside Out was a fantastic film and I agree that it serves as a proverbial “return to form” for Pixar. And while it may be the first Pixar film that did not come in #1 at the box office on its opening weekend, it did earn $91.1 million, which is the biggest opening ever for a non-sequel film. Let’s hope that Pixar (and parent company Disney) still view this as a big win and a big validation for fresh ideas. In the midst of a production slate that is rumored to include Finding Dory, Cars 3, Toy Story 4 and The Incredibles 2, Pixar should know that it’s the “new” that makes them the best animation studio out there.
But there are times when a critic truly risks something, and that is in the discovery and defense of the new. The world is often unkind to new talent, new creations. The new needs friends.
– Anton Ego (Ratatouille)
I saw this film with my two boys (3 and 5) and much of the nuance of the story surely went over their heads. They asked numerous times when the film was done who Riley was, which was … kind of a main plot point. However, they definitely understood what each of the 5 emotion characters stood for and what that meant. We had conversations with them afterward about whether they ever “let Anger be the driver sometimes”. And although my 3-year-old insisted that he doesn’t have little creatures in his head, only a brain, he grasped that sometimes he lets Sadness take over when he doesn’t need to. Having a cartoon springboard to talk about emotional health with my two young sons in an incredible opportunity.
And even though my concrete-thinking boys point out that they don’t have creatures in their heads, they tell me that they have Jesus in their hearts. The Holy Spirit indwells Christians and that’s not just a clever story concept. We have another voice within us as we process the world around us and react to change and hardship. What a privilege that is! I pray that as my boys get older they won’t just mature emotionally (though I pray earnestly for that!), but that they mature spiritually and bear the fruit of the Spirit within them. Because while having mature emotions may prepare them for … gulp… puberty, having a mature faith will prepare them for life beyond this one.