Inside Out

For a good while there, it seemed as if Pixar could do no wrong. I'd list the highlights, but honestly, almost all of them were highlights. Time after time, Pixar offered inventive concepts, emotionally gripping storytelling, infectious energy and sparkling wit. When a new Pixar movie came out, the only real question was whether it would be great or merely very good. Then, perhaps inevitably, Pixar hit a bumpy patch. Cars 2 felt dishearteningly soulless. Brave was a visually impressive but narratively disastrous mess of a movie. Monsters University recaptured some of the magic, though it was hard to shake the feeling that the studio was merely mimicking past successes rather than charting new territory. However, there's no question that the studio's latest offering is a real-deal return to form. Inside Out isn't just the best animated film of the year so far – it's the best animated film in several years. Not since Pixar's own Wall-E have mainstream audiences been treated to an animated film this ambitious and audacious.

The story unfolds within the mind of an 11-year-old girl named Riley, and the main characters are her assorted emotions (depicted here as goofy-looking cartoon characters). There's Joy (Amy Poehler, Parks & Recreation), a bright yellow sprite with a Leslie Knope-esque aura of unflagging optimism. Sadness (Phyllis Smith, The Office) is short, round, blue and gloomy enough to make Eeyore seem cheerful. Fear (Bill Hader, Saturday Night Live) is a lean, frazzled, panicky purple dude, while Disgust (Mindy Kaling, The Mindy Project) is green, fashionable and filled to the brim with catty remarks. Finally, there's Anger (Lewis Black, The Daily Show), a red, boxy, tie-sporting figure who pounds his fist, shouts his frustrations and spews flames from his head.

It would have been easy (and perhaps excusable) to present these emotions as one-dimensional characters, but director Pete Docter and his handful of co-writers understand that each individual emotion is a complicated thing with a lot of rage. They can be subtle or overwhelming, and they're always working in concert with each other to some degree - even when a single emotion takes charge of the vast control panel inside Riley's brain. These characters are always themselves – Joy is always joyful, Sadness is always sad, Anger is always angry, etc. - but they are themselves in different ways and to different degrees.

Riley has always been a relatively easy human being to work with. She's a fairly ordinary girl who has had a mostly pleasant life. Her parents (Kyle MacLachlan, Twin Peaks and Diane Lane, Man of Steel) are loving and understanding, her friendships are positive ones and there haven't really been any situations her emotions weren't capable of dealing with. A handful of delightful early scenes depict emotionally complex moments at various ages – I particularly enjoyed the scene in which Anger (and by extension, a 2-year-old Riley) became infuriated at the presence of broccoli, but was quickly soothed by the ever-reliable “here comes the plane!” game.

Alas, things are about to get difficult. Riley's family has just moved to San Francisco, and a move is rarely an easy thing for a kid. She's in a new school, she's forced to make new friends, she's living in a creepy, barren new house, her dad is perpetually busy with new work responsibilities – it's all a little overwhelming. Joy is particularly determined to keep Sadness at bay during this difficult time, but repressing emotion is rarely a healthy long term solution. Parts of Riley's vibrant interior world (represented as bustling islands – Goofball Island, Family Island, Hockey Island, etc.) begin to shut down, Joy and Sadness are shut out entirely and Fear, Disgust and Anger are left to run things by themselves.

Docter (who also directed Monsters, Inc. and Up) is responsible for some of Pixar's most indelible sequences, and he's the perfect man to helm this particular Pixar installment. I'm a little astonished by how consistently he finds elegant, thought-provoking, deftly moving ways to articulate fairly complex psychological ideas while still delivering a movie that works as a cheerful entertainment for youngsters. There are so many potent metaphors within Inside Out, but Docter never underlines any of them too forcefully or permits them to derail the compelling surface-level narrative.

The world the film presents is a busy, complex one, and we're given a substantial (but never protracted) look at most of its moving parts. We visit Long-Term Memory, where we see useless and useful knowledge being haphazardly discarded for storage purposes. We get a look at Dream Productions, where pleasant tales of diva unicorns and horrifying images of demonic clowns are produced. Characters jump aboard The Train of Thought, get trapped in the murky depths of the Subconscious and there's a visually inventive, Chuck Jones-esque detour through Abstract Thought. There's also a jaunt through Imagination Land, home of angsty fake boyfriends, gingerbread houses and an imaginary friend named Bing-Bong (Richard Kind, A Serious Man).

Bing-Bong (a jovial, pink creature who's part elephant, part cat and part cotton candy) occupies a sizable chunk of the film's midsection, and his story - though somewhat disconnected from the larger narrative – is an affecting one. He once occupied Riley's thoughts on a regular basis, and we see brief glimpses of their Calvin & Hobbes-esque adventures (complete with imagination-fueled rides in a little red wagon). These days, however, he's a very distant memory for Riley and is rarely called into her thoughts. He's grown lonely over the past few years, though that loneliness has done little to dampen his warm, enthusiastic spirit. His final scene is one of the most heartbreaking things I've seen this year. Remarkably, the film offers at least a half-dozen scenes even more affecting than that one.

Inside Out isn't the most immediately beautiful Pixar film on a visual level, but the deeper you go, the more you begin to appreciate the carefully-considered (and cleverly color-coded) intricacy of the design. There's so much smart visual storytelling going on here (particularly during the film's closing stretch, when the movie decides that its audience doesn't need a verbal explanation of what's happening), and the children at my screening seemed to be following all of it without missing a beat. Michael Giacchino's score is different from his previous Pixar efforts – as intimate, nuanced and fragile as the emotions he's attempting to capture. The voice cast is uniformly excellent, though it's worth noting that Poehler, Smith and Kind deliver the richest performances (and Lewis Black – playing himself, basically – delivers the funniest). Again, it's amazing how much range these actors find within the single emotion they've been given to play.

There's a bracing honesty here that feels refreshing, particular in an era when animated movies tend to soft-serve their viewers generic, vaguely inspirational platitudes. It's frustrating for a child to hear their parents say things like “just try to be happy” or “you'll be okay,” because such statements (well-intentioned though they may be) brush a child's feelings aside rather than directly acknowledging them. Inside Out makes the striking suggestion that sadness – and all of the emotions, but especially sadness – is not just okay, but essential. Though the idea of mental environment filled with nonstop joy sounds good in theory, such a state is both unhealthy and unsustainable. There are hard truths delivered with gentle grace: cherished memories fade, what we care about changes, parts of our past die and life can be awful. You find yourself considering your own complicated emotions as you watch it, and imagine Joy and Sadness fighting over control panel as your mind conjures up bittersweet memories from the past. It's one of the funniest, sweetest, saddest, richest films of the year.

Inside Out

Rating: ★★★★ (out of four)
MPAA Rating: PG
Running Time: 94 minutes
Release Year: 2015