There’s a reason why a certain segment of the film community gets flustered when you call Finding Nemo “a Disney movie.” From its inception, Pixar has been invested in making innovative and intelligent films that can be enjoyed by absolutely anyone. Meanwhile, before manufacturing a comeback with Frozen and Big Hero 6, the Walt Disney Animation Studios were in quite the creative slump for well over a decade. Just a year after Pixar created a beautiful and immersive world via talking fish in Nemo, Disney gave us a movie about Roseanne Barr as a dairy cow. So why wasn’t Disney’s brand tarnished during this time? Being able to slap its logo on films like Finding Nemo, The Incredibles, Ratatouille and WALL-E probably helped a great deal. Regardless of the studios’ difference in aesthetic, Pixar just made better movies. That is, until the steaming behemoth known as Cars 2.
Cars 2 wasn’t just bad, it was unimaginably bad. The kind of bad you’d never think could come from the Pixar studios. Lasseter and company always seemed reluctant about sequels anyway, and the narrative as told by gossipy Internet stories said that the only reason they even did sequels for the beloved Toy Story franchise was to take control over the messy straight-to-DVD sequels that Disney had started producing. So when Cars 2 came out in 2011, it didn’t just feel like a gross, poorly-made cash grab, if that weren’t bad enough. It felt like the studio was turning its back on its entire sense of quality. And the uneven Brave and completely superfluous Monsters University didn’t helped suture the wounds either. Enter Inside Out.
When the film’s concept was announced close to five years ago, Inside Out felt like a breath of fresh air. The Pixar movie that takes you inside the mind. What does that even mean? Such an inventive, original premise is certainly a callback to the studios’ creative peak, when they were churning out classic films left and right. Inside Out therefore emerges not just as a possible great film, but as a potential return to the time when the Pixar brand was a guarantee of quality. From the get go, there was a lot of pressure on the success of this film.
Director Pete Docter’s Inside Out features a variety of great comic talent as the core emotions of a young girl’s mind. Parks and Recreation‘s Amy Poehler stars as Joy, fellow SNL alum Bill Hader is Fear, everyone’s favorite asshole Lewis Black is Anger and The Office‘s Mindy Kaling and Phyllis Smith are Disgust and Sadness, respectively. Together, they work to ensure that young Riley (Kaitlyn Dias) lives a safe and happy existence. A great deal of the film’s conflict is between Poehler and Smith’s characters, whose values are clearly at odds. Though Joy is the unquestioned leader of the group, she struggles with understanding the purpose of Sadness in Riley’s life.
If the premise wasn’t lofty enough, Inside Out features a great deal more philosophical and existential questions that are padded down just enough to be digestible for children while still containing a valuable and admirable heft. This is the definition of an intelligent family movie. Such skill manifests in a variety of forms. When Sadness mistakenly turns Riley’s memories from joyful into sad, the resulting effect is shown both in the world of Riley’s brain and the outside world of Riley and her family. The two settings interact together beautifully, no doubt thanks to seamless editing and an imaginative and ambitious script.
Inside Out has a great deal of heart too. There’s a moment when a character makes a sacrifice that beautifully reinforces one of the film’s central themes. Growing older comes at the expense of enduring pain and leaving the things we once loved behind us. Inside Out illustrates that being a human being is a difficult process and that it’s okay to struggle along the way. Pixar hasn’t delivered such a noble and effective meditation on life since Up (coincidentally also a Docter film).
Luckily for Pixar, Inside Out has exceeded all possible expectations. It is nothing less than one of the finest pictures they’ve ever made, which is enough to make it the best film of the year so far. Pixar currently has sequels for Finding Nemo, Toy Story and The Incredibles in the works. This is in addition to an original project with a Día de Muertos theme and a film later this year called The Good Dinosaur. Some of these films will be great and some will undoubtedly be less inspiring.
Inside Out paves the way for continued greatness at Pixar. Perhaps they’re no longer the guaranteed classic churner they used to be, but maybe that’s for the best. Just like the life of young Riley, filmmaking is a bumpy process. There’s bound to be some mistakes (and sell-outs) along the way. At the very least, it’s comforting to know that for every Cars 2, there’s a potential Inside Out to come soon after.