Some thoughts on Pixar's latest masterpiece after the jump:
Pixar films have over the years proven themselves masters of disseminating expository information, usually by eschewing the conventional info dump for something more elegant and unique. The trash-covered wasteland of WALL-E tells all we need to know, while Finding Nemo's prologue simply throws us without warning into the midst of a family tragedy. The most iconic example of the studio's gift may remain Up, with its guaranteed-to-make-you-cry opening montage gracefully laying out the entire life of Carl (and his deep love for Ellie) in a matter of minutes. Obviously, it's not merely the quality of their respective beginnings that make those three movies—along with The Incredibles—the peak of Pixar's work for me. But certainly it speaks to the ways in which the studio has, at its best, rewritten the rulebook for modern mainstream animation: telling stories that are appealing to the youngest members of the population while at the same time refusing to condescend to older viewers looking for a certain level of innovation and emotional maturity.
Much has been made about how Inside Out does the same, but I'd say this is only partially true. On a purely conceptual level it is undoubtedly among Pixar's densest and most ambitious pieces of work, with a setting (the interior of the human mind) rife with possibilities for creative experimentation. Yet as the very first moments of the film make clear, that necessitates a certain level of conventionality to both the storytelling and joke-delivery. It's worth mentioning that this is one of the rare Pixar movies to make use of an extensive opening voiceover, with Joy (Amy Poehler) laying out the rules of the world in an efficient manner that recalls any number of other science-fiction films. The use of this device (so infuriating lesser hands) is not a complaint, mind you; this is Pixar, so it should come as no surprise that the initial info dump is handled about as artfully as possible. The five emotions living inside 11-year-old Riley—Joy, Sadness, Fear, Anger, and Disgust—are introduced rapidly, with the exposition counterbalanced by a bevy of rapid jokes and a genuine sense of wonder at exploring this meticulously thought-through environment.
This continues in various ways throughout the movie. Inside Out is a film that is constantly working hard to explain things to us: a tendency that has been the death knell of countless movie before it, but on which this film tends to thrive. At one point, for instance, Joy and Sadness—who find themselves separated from the other feelings in an incident that threatens the emotional health of Riley—enter the realm of abstract thought, along with Riley's old imaginary friend Bing-Bong (who has become their guide as they journey back home). As they wander through it and are contorted into all sorts of weird shapes (symbolizing the deconstruction process that occurs when our brains grapple with abstract concepts), Sadness verbally recalls a manual she's read that explains exactly what is happening. The scene cheerfully violates the old adage that explaining the joke kills all the humor; it would be unfunny nonsense without the explanation for the bizarre shifts in animation style, but instead it's clever, fresh, and crystal-clear.
The movie's genius lies in moments like these, which translate dense ideas into something that's easy for everyone to grasp. When it comes to a complex structure like the brain, that sort of translation inevitably leads to a loss of certain subtleties, as complicated internal processes are often signified instead by broad signposts. But the end result is worth it, with the only real slide into laziness coming in the scene (previously glimpsed in the initial trailer) around the dinner table, where Riley's parents are presented according to lazy, offensive stereotypes rather than as complex people. Other than that, the only negative is an occasional loss of specificity with regards to Riley; outside of her love of hockey, her general hopes, dreams, and fears feel about as generic as such things get. (I mean, did her biggest fear really have to be clowns? Obviously this is a fairly common fear, but it does sometimes feel as though Pete Docter and co. reached into a grab bag of childhood cliches rather than giving any real thought to what those cliches actually say about Riley, or childhood in general.)
Those quibbles barely have time to register, though, because of the dizzying speed with which Inside Out operates. Indeed, one gets the sense the film deliberately elected to leave certain aspects unexplored and/or broadly defined, solely for the sake of moving forward to the next leg of Joy and Sadness's journey without risking any loss of momentum. (While also leaving time to check in with Disgust, Anger, and Fear as they muck things up back in the control room.) No part of the film feels rushed; it's just relentlessly motion-filled and urgent, packing very scene with visual gags, delightful verbal comedy (often defined by the contrast between Poheler's Parks and Rec-honed sunniness and Phyllis Smith's wonderfully weary portrayal of Sadness), and a brilliant running joke involving a particularly insidious commercial. There are also, alas, a few more conventional gags involving pop culture references and parodies; these tend to be more hit-or-miss, and often don't feel as organic to this film's world as the emotion-based antics do. (It's not that Pixar can't do pop culture homages well. They have in the past. But the tossed-aside references to movies like Chinatown here don't go much beyond lip service, and fall flat as a result.)
Inside Out, then, is a film that for much of its running time is far more kinetic than it is meditative; there's a sense that Pixar is really trying to be fast-paced and clever here. It never feels overly labored, but as I was inundated with joke after joke (and idea after idea), I found it fairly hard to become as immersed in Riley's world as I was with, say, WALL-E's or Marlin's. To be clear: this struggle isn't a visual thing, as this film looks as good as anything the studio has ever released. The character animation glows in such an effervescent way, doing its utmost to achieve the impossible and mimic the intangible quality of emotion. Nor do I mean to imply that a failure of immersion is necessarily a negative; rather, a certain adjusting of expectations is initially necessary in order to appreciate the movie as more of an exercise in rapid-fire jokes and intellectual game-playing than anything else.
That is, until late in the movie, when Inside Out finally moves in for the kill, transforming itself from a cleverly-executed, wonderfully energetic quest narrative to a movie of much more significant emotional heft. Without giving anything away, the process of leaving certain aspects of childhood behind is visualized in heart-rending terms, while the ultimate resolution to the central emotional conflict between Joy and Sadness ends up embracing the virtues of bittersweetness in more ways than one. Whereas previously the film seems to view the mind primarily as an exhilarating playground, its final half-hour taps into issues of change, growth, and emotional development in a profound way. It's some of the best material Pixar has ever done.
Where does the film as a whole rank in the studio's illustrious filmography? As I hinted at earlier, for me it's not quite at the top. Perhaps due to the sheer volume of the jokes, some of the them feel a little underwritten, and the aforementioned scene at the dinner table remains a sore sticking point with me. For these reasons, I doubt I'll ever feel quite as much affection for it as I do for Nemo, which remains Pixar's finest achievement in my eyes. But on the whole, it's not that far removed from the studio's top tier. I'll admit it: I was really worried about this one just a few months ago. The end result, though, has for the most part surpassed my wildest dreams. In other words . . . it's a Pixar movie.
The Short: So here's the part where I defend Lava. Actually, I won't. It's treacly as hell, and I was cognizant every single second of how hard it was working to manipulate me. It's also pretty much the same story as The Blue Umbrella: inanimate objects clearly coded as female and male (because non-heteronormative relationships are apparently still too shocking for Pixar) fall in love and live happily ever after. I totally get why so many people hate it. But that song, the expressions on the volcanoes' faces . . . it worked on me. I was a mess. I make no excuses, but I liked it.