Back in 1995, the world was a simpler place. Home internet service was still in its dial-up infancy, cellular phones were bricks used to make Zach Morris look cool, and CGI was still being figured out. Sure: Sam Neill walked with dinosaurs, Robert Patrick turned to liquid metal, and young Indiana Jones faced off against a stained glass knight; but CGI was still something that could easily take you out of a movie. The thought of creating an entire film with CGI animation was crazy… to everyone but John Lasseter and the magicians at Pixar. They spent years crafting what would become the masterpiece that launched a thousand films: Toy Story. Pixar’s first feature-length film immersed you in an engrossing adventure story that was ostensibly about friendship, but that wasn’t what made it incredible. Yeah, Toy Story told a very entertaining story, and it told it well, but what it really did was immerse you within your own imagination. The goal of a film, ultimately, is to force a suspension of reality; a successful film will have its viewers believing it is real. Tell an unbelievable story in a believable way, and you have done your job: Toy Story forces you to believe toys come to life when you aren’t around. Whether it lasts for the 90 minutes you’re watching the film, a couple of weeks afterward, or for the rest of your life: there is a period of time when the unbelievable is made real to you, and that’s what made Pixar’s first film so influential in the film industry.
For the twenty years since Toy Story‘s groundbreaking release, everyone–including Pixar themselves–has been chasing that dream, with varying levels of success; we’ve long since realized it had less to do with CGI and more to do with just being really good a telling your story, which Pixar is the very best at. In their thirteen films following Toy Story, Pixar has fluctuated in its ability to recapture its own magic, but it has outpaced the rest of the animation industry by leaps and bounds. The highs would be Up, Wall-E, Monsters Inc, Finding Nemo; the lows would really just be Cars and Cars 2. To make this unintentional editorial on Pixar’s history as short as possible, I’ll sum up what I feel it is that makes Pixar’s films work so well, when they do: other animation studios seem to be more interested in making movies about their characters, whereas Pixar has an amazing ability to tell their stories in a way that makes them about you. With Toy Story, it’s about you and your toys; with Monsters Inc, it’s about you and the fears in your closet; with Finding Nemo, it’s about you and your father; with Toy Story 3, it’s about you and your adolescence. These are not movies about characters; they are stories about you, and that’s why Cars–entertaining and enjoyable as it is–doesn’t really work on the same level as these other films. The story about how and why John Lasseter made Cars is much more affecting because it’s a relatable story about a man reconnecting with his family through an open road, not a movie with cars that have faces on them.
Why did I go through all of that? Because I want you to know, when I say Inside Out is Pixar’s greatest achievement, it’s not hollow hyperbole I’m throwing around because this is the flavor of the month. It is exceptionally difficult to not be a prisoner of the moment, especially when dealing with a film from Pixar, because they don’t make bad movies. When I say Cars and Cars 2 are the “lows”, that’s a relative statement. Pixar’s “lows” are still better than 99% of anyone else’s highs. Taking everything into account, I am entirely comfortable with slotting Inside Out firmly into the top position as Pixar’s best film, replacing the fantastic Toy Story 3.
Before I explain why I say that, however, we have to start at the beginning. As with every Pixar film, the beginning actually starts before the beginning; with an animated short film ahead of the feature film, that is. This go-round, the attached short is Lava, director James Ford Murphy’s love letter to Hawaii and its music. This is one of Pixar’s best short films, as well, and it is such because you can feel Murphy’s affection for the subject material. Murphy has been with Pixar for over twenty years, working on several films, but he makes his directorial debut here, on a film they have been working on since at least 2011, when Murphy actually took his family to Hawaii so he could do research for the film. If you want to know why Pixar’s films are so good, read that sentence again. James Ford Murphy loves Hawaii, its culture, its people, and its music. You can tell those things from the film, but you don’t have to infer them, since he has professed his affection in many interviews. Lava is yet another instance where an animated film gets “Hawaii on film” the right way (following Lilo & Stitch and preceding the upcoming Moana, which is not about Hawaii specifically but the Polynesian islands); after the ordeal with Cameron Crowe’s Aloha, this is a lovely counterbalance.
Lava stars two people: Kuana Torres Kahele and Napua Greig, who are both Hawaiian musicians and, in the film, both sing a song written by James Ford Murphy. Not only is does the animation hit the sweet spot between capturing the natural beauty of its environment and remaining soft and inviting enough to allow its story to be told (much like Pixar’s Up), but it also gives you a beautiful song to be humming over and over–and your memory will probably throw back at you multiple times, for no reason other than it wants the song stuck in your head.
On to the feature film: Inside Out follows the life of a girl named Riley, and her life is shown to us through the compartmentalized life of the emotions living in her head: Joy, Sadness, Fear, Anger, and Disgust. All of these anthropomorphic emotions are given expected personalities: Joy is happy, Anger is mad, etc. Throughout Riley’s day-to-day life, we’re shown the different emotions interacting with her and each other to give her the various emotions she experiences. Very straightforward; very easy to follow. In the days since Inside Out‘s release, I’ve seen and heard a lot of people unilaterally state “Inside Out is not a film made for kids”, or things similar to that effect. With all due respect to everyone else discussing this film, I frankly don’t know what the hell they’re talking about. I suppose, since Inside Out contains so much for adults to experience, perhaps it’s overshadowing the children’s film underneath? If that’s the case, I mean, okay, but I wholly and unequivocally disagree.
Let me tell you about my experience watching this film. I saw it with my mother; she wanted to see it, and I was going, so I said, “Hey, why don’t you come with me?” So we’re sitting there, about five minutes before the movie starts, and this toddler behind us starts acting up. She’s making the kind of noise you expect to hear when you’re seeing a kid’s movie, so it’s no big deal, but it is happening. It was nonstop for those five or so minutes. You can see where this is going. The film started (first Lava and then Inside Out), and the only noises you heard out of her were the appropriate noises for the film: she laughed at the physical comedy, and she gasped at the excitement, but the most telling part of all is, during the film’s soulcrushingly sad and quiet moments, there was silence. The film didn’t lose her in its departures to deeper storytelling. That’s what makes Pixar’s films like Inside Out as good as they are; like Inside Out director Pete Docter’s previous films Monsters Inc and Up (as well as Pixar’s Toy Story trio, Finding Nemo, etc), this film is a layered experience. There is the surface-level, easy to follow plot of Riley and her emotions and their fun dialogue; that story actually does for emotions what Toy Story did for toys. These aren’t just characters, but they are fully realized beings who inhabit a lived-in environment parallel to our own. Like Monstropolis in Monsters Inc, or Andy’s bedroom in Toy Story, or the ocean in Finding Nemo; the world inside of Riley’s head is one you’re shown just enough of for your imagination to fill in the blanks. That is a treasure for a child’s mind, watching this film, and I guess it’s oddly fitting for adults to review this film and feel as though children won’t get it because adults and children don’t get the same things. That’s kind of the idea behind the entire film. Adult film reviewers feeling as though this film was made for them is a testament to how well Pixar executed the balancing act between a film made for children and a film made for adults.
Then, beneath the surface, there is the deeper exploration of what it really means to feel and learning the value of your feelings; all of your feelings, because whether you like it or not, you cannot get rid of any of your emotions. It’s through the prism of this morality tale that Inside Out elevates from just a fun film to a masterpiece of cinema. I know how pretentious and myopic that sounds, but making it sound any differently won’t change the fact: Inside Out is an amazing achievement in filmmaking. Through its story, Inside Out deconstructs its own three-act structure from the inside out (pun fully intended). In order for the resolution in the third act to have meaning, the peril of the second act has to carry real consequence; in order for the peril of second act to carry real consequence, the foundation of the first act has to carry the right amount of weight. Inside Out follows this structure perfectly, in several ways, and it tells you what it’s doing while it’s doing it. I’m sorry, but I find that incredible.
Sure, kids can watch this movie and enjoy the fun aspects of their imagination put right there on the screen for them, and adults can watch this film and enjoy marriage jokes and Chinatown references. The value of this film, though, is not measured in what its characters do but in what its story reflects. Inside Out is not only a Pixar film; in many ways, it’s a culmination of animated film as a fully realized storytelling medium. In this, it seems to borrow from Studio Ghibli and its expression of age through a child’s loss of wonder. I think specifically of Spirited Away and Chihiro’s struggle to find her identity in the absence of her parents. In multiple ways, both Riley and Joy deal with similar issues. I was also reminded of the films of the great Don Bluth; films like An American Tail, The Land Before Time, or All Dogs Go To Heaven. Bluth’s films (as well as those of Studio Ghibli) have often been termed by some as not being “films made for children”. Honestly, I can understand why that is, because for all of their many qualities, those films do not sugarcoat the delivery, but what those films do is tell real stories. They reflect a world children actually live in; they may often do so with fantastical creatures and whimsical settings, but these are stories to which both children and adults can relate.
In no other character in Inside Out are these similarities more evident than in Joy and how she eventually grows to reflect the role, not just of a two-dimensional character inside Riley’s head but, of Riley’s mother. Every person watching the film sees this transformation taking place, and viewers of all ages get it; children see this as Joy experiencing sadness, and that is a meaningful development within the plot, but adults not only see it but know why it happens because they’ve been in Joy’s position. Yes, Inside Out is made for children, and it’s made for adults; it’s made for humans and any being with the ability to think or feel and the wherewithal to comprehend empathy. What allows Inside Out to stand out from other gray-area films of the past 30 years is how deftly it takes a subject we often struggle to understand for our entire lives–emotions–and packages it in a box children can not only comprehend but employ. That is wonderful. With Inside Out, Pixar has taken everything the past thirty years of animation (including their own successes and failures, as well as those of those others such as Studio Ghibli and Don Bluth) has taught us about how to tell an endearing and real story to children and also have it endure the aging process. From the moment you watch Inside Out, it is a part of you and you of it, because the first time you saw it is a memory you’ll always have, and the film’s plot revolves around that very concept. Think back to the first time you saw Toy Story; the feeling of wonder it gave you. Now think of the first time you saw Toy Story 3; the feeling of nostalgia it captured and how it reminded you of the wonder you felt with Toy Story. With Inside Out, Pixar bottled that feeling and translated it into a single, exceptional story, they were able to do this through the story of Inside Out because they have already been living in the minds of children for twenty years.
I would be remiss if I didn’t mention the cast. They’re all great, but I’m not going to name them all because Pixar’s films focus on the story and not who is in the story–you’ll notice on the poster above there are no names. That’s something Pixar has been very good at: creating their characters and then finding the right people to portray them; then they play to the actor’s strengths. The best example of this in Inside Out is Lewis Black voicing Anger. He’s a comedian who has made an art of rage, so he fits perfectly in this role, and they were then able to have the character inherit Black’s mannerisms to great affect. Also, yeah, John Ratzenberger is in there, too, as always.
Inside Out is in theaters now: do yourself a favor and go see it. And thankfully, we won’t have to wait two years to see the next Pixar film, as The Good Dinosaur opens in November.