After relinquishing the animation spotlight to Laika and parent company Disney over the last two years, Pixar is back with a vengeance with no less than two new films this year - "Inside Out" and "The Good Dinosaur". The first of this duo, "Inside Out", has already been released earlier this summer to fervent acclaim, following a high profile premiere at Cannes. For fans of the studio - i.e. most cinephiles - the film was a triumphant return to form, proving they hadn't lost their knack for executing original concepts with appeal for the whole family.
"Inside Out" is the story of an 11-year old girl named Riley and the complex set of emotions that exist in her mind. The film takes place in one pivotal year in her life, when her family packs up their Minnesota home to move to San Francisco, turning her world upside down in the process. As Riley struggles to adjust to her new environment, it's up to her anthropomorphic emotions (Joy, Fear, Anger, Disgust and Sadness) to keep her stable. Lead by Joy (Amy Poehler) in Riley's mental Headquarters, "Inside Out" thus takes us on an adventure through the mind of a little girl, revealing the memories and relationships which define her personality.
As I sat and watched this film unfold, I couldn't help but remember an article written by Tim Brayton, resident animation expert over at The Film Experience. In praising Laika as the most exciting animation studio right now, he remarked on one of the core problems holding back mainstream animated films. He stated that they all follow a basic plot structure, "where the first third builds a world, the second third is about making the characters feel feelings, and the final third is a chase sequence". Essentially, Hollywood animated films are hamstrung by the need to appeal to an ADHD mentality, favoring manic adventures to draw in the kids.
Being a product of the referenced Hollywood system, this observation is of significant relevance to "Inside Out", forming the basis of the single fundamental qualm I had with this otherwise outstanding film. Having arrived late to the game in critical discussion of this one, its reputation already preceded it. The reports coming out of screenings spoke of adults in tears, and there numerous thinkpieces about the film's accuracy in depicting childhood depression. With this knowledge in mind (as well as its basic premise), I came into it expecting a deep character study about Riley and her state of mind. But despite good intentions, "Inside Out" is primarily about the Joy and Sadness characters, and their adventure through Riley's world of longterm memories. Glimpses into the implications on Riley herself were disappointingly brief.
That "Inside Out" manages to still be so affecting is thanks to incredible work from its voice actors, particularly Amy Poehler as Joy. Through her lively character, we get the film's most meaningful message about emotions. Joy's constant optimism and "never say never" attitude to the plot's most challenging obstacles shows how true joy is a feeling that requires conscious effort. While the film struggles to uphold its own logic with regards to depression (how does Riley get so depressed if Sadness isn't controlling Headquarters?), the mere vigour of Joy is able to emphasize the film's theme that depression is waiting to afflict you if you let your guard down.
Though "Inside Out" may not be quite the emotional powerhouse that a Studio Ghibli or a Laika would have likely envisioned, its premise still satisfies greatly on an artistic and entertainment level. Indeed, the film is relentlessly funny, and it manages this through cleverness and wit rather than dumbed-down broad humour. You certainly can't accuse this script of being unoriginal, as the world it creates offers up genius concepts - like personality islands, a dream production film studio and a literal Train of Thought - that are all too rare in contemporary animated films. Overall, it may suffer from being overworked to cater to the youngest of audiences, but that's always a compromise inherent in today's family-oriented fare. With such a gifted voice cast, a brilliantly hilarious plot and rare depth to its pathos, "Inside Out" emerges as one of the strongest animated films we'll see this year, or any year for that matter.
For many critics, "Inside Out" will go down as one of the best films of 2015, animated or otherwise. As a result, it's already generating Oscar buzz that may see Pixar reclaiming a spot in the Best Picture lineup. The film already seems to have Best Animated Feature locked down, so all that's left is to see if it contend in the top category, which would surely be accompanied by a well-deserved nod for Best Original Screenplay.