Pixar’s Return to Form: A Review of “Inside Out”
Inside Out was released in theaters this week to almost universal acclaim, something we have come to expect from Pixar. Fortunately, Pixar managed to channel some of the old magic and escape from the shadow of previous disappointments (Cars 2, Monsters University) and mediocre efforts (Brave). Inside Out isn’t one of my favorite Pixar films—actually, it ranks toward the bottom, excluding those black marks on their ouvre—but it’s still a great film and a trend in the right direction for the once infallible studio.
To get to the main attraction, you’ll have to get through Lava first. The newest Pixar short is, in my opinion, a miss. Though the audience was mildly entertained by the story of a lonely volcano, I was let down. Despite the beautiful animation and clever anthropomorphization, Lava is light on story. It lets a song narrate the plot, much like 2003’s Boundin’. However, a lot less happens in Lava. In order to fill the runtime, things get repeated… and repeated. And repeated. In place of visual storytelling, Lava opts to narrate what little story there is. Even the narration is redundant. Lava might have a sweet, simple idea at its core, but it’s one that is poorly executed.
The reward for sitting through Lava is worth it, starting with Michael Giacchino’s stirring melody playing in lieu of the Disney Pictures fanfare. After the Pixar banner, Inside Out’s concept is explained quickly and gracefully. Eleven-year-old Riley’s emotions (Joy, Sadness, Fear, Disgust, and Anger) run her brain. There are other elements involved, like memory, which we witness firsthand as we get to know the characters. We’re also introduced to the characters outside Riley’s brain— her mom and dad. The family has relocated from Minnesota to San Francisco and Riley is trying to make the best of it. When her emotions won’t be ignored—literally—things start to derail, and Joy (Amy Poehler) quests to get things back to working order.
Inside Out succeeds because of the detail with which it’s brought to life. Like many other great Pixar films, the premise may be old hat, but the execution is top notch. The team in Emoryville is adept in making sure they make full use of a concept with immense detail. From the mechanics to the production design, we get a real sense of the inner workings of Riley’s brain. Then, those same mechanics become obstacles for our main characters. By switching between the events inside Riley’s brain and outside, the movie gets some of its best laughs as well as its most heartfelt moments. Inside the brain, the conflict manifests as high-concept, wildly imaginative, and with dire stakes. Yet outside, we’re reminded of how the same conflict is simple, relatable, and poignant. In this way, directors Pete Docter and Ronnie del Carmen get to have their cake and eat it too. Turns out, it’s good cake. Joy is the protagonist with the most to learn, though Bing Bong (a standout performance from Richard Kind), Riley’s imaginary friend, ends up stealing the show for a while. There are great setups and payoffs throughout the movie, both of the joke and plot variety. The emotional moments are handled with confidence and avoid playing down to the audience. My only gripe is that Sadness (Phyliss Smith, perfectly cast) ends up being under-developed despite being an integral part of the film. As a result, the fiasco that sets the movie in motion feels arbitrary. Still, we’re talking the difference between an A- and an A.
Inside Out is packed with laughs (it’s one of the funniest Pixar releases) but manages some emotional moments as well. All in all, it is well-crafted and visually captivating, if not as satisfying as some other Pixar classics. If nothing else, you’ll be reminded of why Pixar wears the animation crown. A trailer for Underdogs played before my screening— there’s nothing like bad animation to help you appreciate the quality of Pixar’s. Vote with your dollar and hopefully Pixar can focus on original ideas, rather than resorting to sequels like the rest of the studios.