INSIDE OUT Review: Pixar’s Greatest Achievement

Pixar isn't just back - Pixar has made their best movie yet.

Every human being should see Inside Out. Every single living person should see the new film from Pixar, and not just because it’s a delightful return to form for the animation house that has been wowing us for decades. Every single living person should see Inside Out because it is a movie that reflects absolutely universal human experiences and addresses them in ways that allow us to understand ourselves a little better, but more than that, in ways that allow us to understand other people around us a little better.

Inside Out is a movie that will make you a better human being.

Besides being a work of staggering empathy and humanity, Inside Out is also a really good movie. Riley is a 12 year old girl uprooted from her home in Minnesota to live in San Francisco, who leaves behind her friends and her life and her comfort for a new city that is alien, new kids who are unfamiliar and a new family dynamic that frightens her. That’s the external story - inside her head there’s a whole other movie going on. Inside her head - in Headquarters - are the five emotions that help guide her through life. There’s Joy, the first emotion Riley ever experienced, and the dominant one. Then there’s Sadness, an outcast in the sunny confines of Headquarters. Rounding out the bunch are Fear, Disgust and Anger, all of whom work together under Joy to keep Riley safe, happy and productive.

But things go wrong in San Francisco. Riley isn’t happy, and Sadness’ influence begins to grow. She begins to taint old memories with her blues, and in an attempt to stop her from making any more memories melancholy, Joy accidentally gets whooshed out of Headquarters. Sadness too, leaving just Anger, Disgust and Fear at the controls as Riley tries to navigate a whole new world.

As Riley stumbles through her day in depression Joy and Sadness try to make their way back to Headquarters. Their trip is a journey through the geography of the mind, a quest that takes them from Long Term Memory Storage through Imagination Land to the realm of abstract thinking to the Dream Factory itself. Each of these areas are clever and gorgeous, with the Pixar team creating sly commentary on the ways the we think and feel (on the Train of Thought Joy accidentally knocks over boxes of Opinions and boxes of Facts, and she can’t tell them apart enough to unsort them. “Happens all the time,” their imaginary friend guide tells her).

Inside Out feels not like a tour of Riley’s mind but a tour of our own minds, and as the trio - Joy and Sadness are joined by Bing Bong, Riley’s discarded imaginary friend - advances each new place they visit sheds light on our own inner workings. It’s a breathtakingly enormous concept - a cartoon that shows how we think and feel - executed with the kind of ease that makes you forget just how ambitious it all is.

This is Pixar’s best film for a number of reasons; in terms of design it’s the studio’s most exciting and imaginative, and it features the most inventive animated sequence in Pixar history (when the trio enter abstract thought). It’s also incredible on an emotional level; Inside Out is never maudlin or cheap but it’s powerfully emotional and affecting. The stakes of the movie are low - one girl’s happiness - but they’re incredibly high - one girl’s happiness. Riley is a good kid, and as she descends into depression and sadness, and as the elements that make up her personality begin crumbling, you can’t help but feel on the edge of your seat with true tension. No one’s life is on the line, but in many ways something more powerful is at stake: a young woman’s whole life.

There’s another thing that makes Inside Out a miracle amidst the miracles of other Pixar movies: Bing Bong. A silly, stupid character voiced by Richard Kind, Bing Bong is part cotton candy and part dolphin and he cries tears of wrapped candy, and he’s the most lovable and endearing character Pixar has created yet. All pluck, stupidity and good will, Bing Bong is the embodiment of everything pure inside of us as kids and… well, bring tissues. He will make you cry.

As much as Inside Out gives us a way to examine our own thoughts and feelings it is even more powerful in the way that it allows us to understand the thoughts and feelings of others. Roger Ebert famously said that movies are empathy machines, and Inside Out is an empathy interface, giving you the language to see where other people are coming from. The film’s end credits are a visit to the personalized Headquarters of each (real world) character in the film, and this bit isn’t just funny (although it's very funny), it feels like a manifesto. Everybody has their own things going on, and while they’re never quite the same as yours, they’re very similar. Your dad’s version of Anger or Sadness or Joy may look different, and there may be a different emotion in the driver’s seat in his Headquarters, but they’re all coming from the same place as yours.

Inside Out is remarkable for its nuance as well; for the first thirty minutes it seems like a film that is going to have Joy figuring out how to keep Sadness away from Riley’s life, but there’s a quick moment where we look inside Riley’s mom’s head and see that Sadness is running things in there. The simplicity of the film’s central message - Sadness is good and helps us understand the ways others hurt - is what makes it so profound. All the great moral messages are, at their heart, very simple but that’s why they’re also so true. This is a film parents can show their children to make them understand their own feelings as well as to help them understand the feelings of others. 

There’s a problem that a lot of the late period great Pixar films have - they run out of steam. Wall-E never surpasses that first act, and Up’s third act is something we seem to have, as a nation, agreed to leave out of the discussion. The Toy Story films are the ones that are strongest from front-to-back, and I think Inside Out joins their ranks as a movie that works consistently throughout. This isn’t a film where the set-up is better than the pay-off, or where the second act has the feeling of wheel-spinning. Every moment of the film counts, and the entire movie packs an emotional wallop at the level of the first ten minutes of Pete Docter’s Up.

Docter co-directed Inside Out with Ronaldo Del Carmen, and with this movie I believe he cements himself as the greatest filmmaker in the Pixar stable. Up, even with its main body that never matches the prologue, is a great film, and Monsters Inc is a minor masterpiece. In each of these films Docter shows a tender understanding of the range of human experience that he filters in a way a child can understand. But he never loses the complexity, no matter how simplified the premise of Inside Out sounds; like in Monsters Inc he takes an elevator pitch and turns it into something rich and meaningful beyond the surface features.

I love Inside Out. I love the emotions, each played by a wonderful comedic actor who brings a heartbeat to the anthropomorphic embodiment of an abstract concept. I love the world that the film creates inside Riley’s head, and I love the real world with which Riley must cope. I love that the film understands it’s the smallest stuff - like a pizzeria that fucks up pizza - that can be the biggest triggers of unhappiness. I love that the movie is so beautiful and lyrical inside Riley’s head while being perfectly grounded yet still lovely in the real world. I love the humor that runs throughout the film, a river of comedy that is honest. But most of all I love the film’s sadness, and the way that sadness opens the door to understanding and empathy. Inside Out achieves what you want from any movie - it entertains you. But Inside Out does more than that. It achieves what all the greatest movies ever made strive to do - it makes you feel connected to yourself, to the world, and to every single person living in it.