Bluntly, Inside Out is not a good film because it explores the inner regions of a child’s mind, nor is this a particularly novel concept. The girders of the screenplay strip parts from many films that rest on the subject of literalizing human emotion.. Winnie the Pooh, in all its facets, including the seminal duo of feature films by Pixar’s parent company, Disney, is implicitly about childhood emotions let loose in the forest of the mind. Eeyore is melancholy, Tigger is a deranged enthusiast and childhood id, Pooh is the curiosity balancing them all on a pin head. The Hundred Acre Wood is Christopher Robin’s free-floating mental space, scratchily drawn with free-floating ambition and tapered-off regions where the harsh scrawl fades into watercolor lightness to symbolize Robin’s emotions eventually trailing off into the great unknown limbo of pure empty whiteness.
Robin’s mind had limits at such a young age, in other words, so the Hundred Acre Wood couldn’t go on forever. Within those limits, the facets of uncontained childhood emotion epitomized in Pooh and his friends played, explored, tempted the limits of that mind, and tried to expand. But above all, they tried to work together, to learn how to read cues from one another and combine into a holistic adult capable of channeling all their emotions into a problem-solving team. The story of Winnie the Pooh is the story of a child’s mind learning to work in harmony. So, Inside Out …your emotions-at-play theme is not new, nor was it new when Pooh tried it many decades ago.
Inside Out is, instead, a much more fulfilling form of great cinema. Not great because it has a new idea, but because it is an evolution and possible perfection of old ideas. Which is, although it may not sound it, a harder sell. Many (and I mean many) forgotten movies have dreamt up or wandered into new ideas about cinematic storytelling and theme, but they almost always crash into the glass ceiling of execution. It is relatively easy to have a new idea about what cinema ought to do. The challenge isn’t the idea, but wringing out the wet towel of technique until it becomes dry and pert again. The challenge is actually placing your idea on the river and seeing it downstream, in other words. With Winnie the Pooh, the glass ceiling of the idea had been reached. Inside Out is Pixar breaking through the glass ceiling.
Breaking through with more to prove than ever before, arguably since their first production twenty years ago, Toy Story. For a long while (the ’00s), a sterling Pixar offering for the year was simply a given, and the company’s hot streak propelled them forth on the steam engine of success. The onset of the 2010s, however, saw dark times, a year taken off to recalibrate, and Inside Out serving the ceremonious role of having to prove that the once-christened company still had it, and could keep it. Inside Out (directed by the venerable Pete Doctor, who has proven the most consistent Pixar director by now, as well as the warmest) has weight on its shoulders, and he demonstrates the tenacity of Atlas himself in lifting up the world one film at a time.
For Inside Out, Pixar does nothing less than tackle depression itself. They do more, in fact: they legitimize depression and justify melancholy, personifying emotions and then undercutting the validity of happiness at the expense of the more nominally unwanted emotions: fear, anger, disgust, and primarily sadness. These emotions all occupy Riley’s (Kaitlyn Dias) head, which has, along with the rest of her, recently moved from Minnesota to San Francisco (a rite of passage these days, it seems). Upon arrival, she slumps into a pit of disinterest and dejection when Sadness (Phyllis Smith), a fuzzy blue turtleneck-donning figure living in Riley’s head, discovers she has the ability to change Riley’s emotions with her touch. When she changes one of Riley’s core memories (the ones that structure her life interests, and all coincidentally and unapologetically happy ones at that), the core memories are dislodged and Sadness, along with Joy (Amy Poehler), have to trek through the various regions of Riley’s mind to rediscover, and probably redefine, Riley’s happiness.
A fine idea, but again, an idea that could prismatically lash out into anything from the most incompetent drek to the highest mountains of cinematic achievement. What justifies the film is the Pixar machine operating in perfect harmony with itself, not simply literalizing emotions but literalizing them in deliriously colorful, abstracted ways. As a technical showpiece, Inside Out is some kind of genius – the fibers on the five emotions are marvels, and the emotions themselves are intricately squishy springboards for design fireworks. The broad strokes of the emotions, from the putrid, swampy green of Disgust (Mindy Kaling) to the volcanically squashed Anger (Lewis Black) to the needle-thin lightning bolt of waiting-disaster and stuttery movements that is Fear (Bill Hader), are perfect reflections of emotions as a child might imagine them to exist in their head. They are, essentially, shapes squashed and stretched into a vaguely bipedal form, cute in the way a child might imagine but also, pointedly, abstract and surreal in the way a child might imagine.
From these emotions, to the discovery of Riley’s childhood imaginary friend Bing Bong (Richard Kind), an elephantine cotton candy mass of pink with a wink half-way between Looney Tunes and Disney, Inside Out is one of Pixar’s most childlike films. Which isn’t to say it is childish, but that its reckless, free-fall, roller-coaster-of-chaos narrative structure understands and evokes the mind of a child. Since it takes place in a child’s head, you couldn’t imagine a better melding of style and structure with concept. That is, functionally, what someone means when they say what matters most is “the execution of an idea”, and not simply the idea itself.
Inside Out is not a parade of pleasures, mind you. Well, it is, but it also evokes and implies real empathy and sadness; the ever-animated, ricocheting, elastic anarchy of the mind becomes not an edge-of-your-seat corridor of mirrors, but an implosion of a mind amidst self-destruction. Inside Out’s most startling achievement, by far, is how it explores the sometimes too-impulsive, too-busy Pixar framework as the dark underbelly of a child whose mind is too busy as a reflection of the dissolution of everything she knew to be fun and safe. The busyness and rush from moment to moment and inability to stop and wait that defines the film – the central flaw of some of Pixar’s films – becomes a commentary on the chaos and tumult of a child’s mind.
A form of pandemonium that Pixar soothes not with happiness, but with a potent reminder of the value of sadness. The stabilizing effect is not Joy saving the day, but Joy coming to understand how stubborn, conceited, smug, and even abusive she can be, and how her feeling like she can paint over all other emotions with her radiant charisma is a recipe for a simple human who is unable to cope with the perils of life. Riley survives via sadness, and by learning how to temper emotions with each other, how to mix sadness and joy and fear and anger and disgust so that no one emotion controls the others. Inside Out is Pixar’s paean to the vitality of sadness, to the acceptance that it is ultimately okay to not feel happy, and to the reminder that happiness can only attain value with sadness there backing it up.
So, yes, Inside Out isn’t a new idea, nor is it good because of its idea. It is superior animation because it executes its dreams as fluidly and exasperatingly as any film ever has, which is the divining rod of most essential cinema. Take a little film called Citizen Kane. It didn’t, as we are often told, introduce the technique of filming ceilings to strangle the characters and reveal the suffocating limits of their own domestic egos. It didn’t introduce the idea of filming Orson Welles, bellowing to the gods, from below so that he himself engulfed the screen with power and charisma. What it did was much more important: it perfected those techniques, combining them in shots so we confronted Kane the monomaniacal giant of a man and Kane the failed hubris who, no matter how giant, was always limited by the ceilings of his own making. The way he engulfed the camera became not a symbol of his ego, but a marker of folly, of the way his gargantuan charisma bolstered him until he threatened to cover the entire camera and be swallowed by that charisma.
Welles’ genius wasn’t inventing an idea or a technique, but rereading those techniques, combining them, playing with them, and perfecting them. He pushed the masters of old to their limits. He didn’t design a new catapult to break through the glass ceiling. He simply calibrated it to its maximal trajectory. Sometimes it’s that calibration that makes it or breaks it; without it, the catapult is useless. Inside Out is that calibration, and it could not be better tuned.