Pixar’s Inside Out feels like a miracle for two reasons: deprivation and reclamation. Last year marked the first since 2005 that the studio failed to bless pop culture with new material. Leading up to that gap in their slate, though, Pixar’s status as an animation giant started a perilous downward spiral thanks to a surge in sequels (Toy Story 3, Cars 2, Monsters University) and one troubled original effort (the under-appreciated Brave). The Internet’s hive mind began to question whether they were over the hill, whether they’d lost it, whether their decline was inevitable.
With Inside Out, Pixar has brought their creative and commercial* slump to an end**. They’ve reassumed their mantle as leaders in their field. The near-universal love piled on the film practically feels inevitable: it does what Pixar does best, leaning on awesome fantasticism while blending emotional highs and lows into a satisfyingly complex mélange. In the specific case of Inside Out, those highs and lows help shape each other. You quite literally cannot have Joy (Amy Poehler, effusive and bubbly as is her wont) without Sadness (Phyllis Smith, down, dour, and decisive), the film tells us. Logically we can assume the reverse is true as well, but Pete Docter and Ronnie del Carmen focus chiefly on the ways sorrow informs cheer. How much good does happiness do for a person who doesn’t understand unhappiness, after all?
In the end it’s Sadness, not Joy, that’s responsible for saving the day and giving memories real meaning. But lying at the center of Inside Out’s clever metaphors for repression and emotional catharsis, there’s an equally clever metaphor about Pixar’s approach to making movies. Inside Out isn’t just the best Pixar movie to grace cineplex screens since 2009’s Up; it feels like a deeply personal artistic statement as well.
The story takes place within and without the mind of young Riley (Kaitlyn Dias), an eleven year old girl yanked from the familiar embrace of her Minneapolis home and transplanted to the undulating alien landscape of San Francisco, a world where people garnish their pizzas with broccoli and nothing else, and the warm weather forbids the practice of outdoor hockey. Riley is guided behind the scenes by her emotions, chiefly the aforementioned Joy, who works in concert with Riley’s other feelings: Anger (Lewis Black), Disgust (Mindy Kaling), and Fear (Bill Hader). At the bottom of the sensory pecking order there’s Sadness, whose role in the daily operations of Riley’s brain is a mystery of sorts to her peers, particularly Joy. Riley’s cross-country move forces the issue of Sadness’ raison d’etre, though, after Joy struggles with her mopey cobalt counterpart and along with the core memories that sustain Riley’s memory islands - the pieces of Riley that comprise her persona, from Goofball Island, to Hockey Island, Honesty Island, Family Island, and Friendship Island - the pair wind up getting sucked into the inner recesses of her mind, leaving the dream team of Anger, Disgust, and Fear at the helm.
Throughout the film, Joy dutifully safeguards Riley’s core memories, including one she prizes above all the rest, in which Riley’s hockey teammates back in Minneapolis hold her aloft during a post-win celebration. Later on, though, we learn that the recollection Joy holds so dear actually germinated from defeat. Riley lost that game by missing a crucial shot. We see her sitting alone after the fact, slumped over and miserable. (It’s an abject scene that would make Christopher Nolan smirk in self-satisfaction. Memory really is interpretive!) But as Riley despairs, something wonderful happens. Mom and Dad quietly walk into the frame and wrap her up in a loving parental embrace. Before long the film takes us right back to Joy’s favored image, and she finally has her Eureka moment: Riley needs Joy to thrive, but she needs Sadness just as much to induce her other emotions and shepherd her to spiritual ablution.
As it happens, so do Pixar audiences, which is why their magic formula has worked on us so well for so long, and possibly one of the reasons why Inside Out is striking such a chord among moviegoers. (It’s also really, really good, in case that hasn’t been made clear elsewhere.) Pixar has taught viewers this lesson time and again since 1995’s Toy Story; delight and woe are two sides of the same bittersweet coin. They’re almost like siblings, something that’s characterized (intentionally or otherwise) in the way Joy treats Sadness in Inside Out - not as her peer but as a serious wet blanket and a nuisance.
The truth, of course, is that Pixar films don’t work without their inner nuggets of melancholy. In Toy Story, that’s represented by Woody’s growing resentment toward Buzz Lightyear, who he perceives as a threat to his relationship with their owner, Andy; the very thought that Andy could replace Woody makes him feel immediately dejected. Meanwhile Carl Fredricksen, the crotchety protagonist of Up, embarks on an adventure straight out of a pulp novel to fulfill a promise made with his late wife - the film’s opening minutes play out their courtship in full, from their childhood, to their years of wedded bliss, to their travails in parenthood, to her final days - to travel to South America. In Finding Nemo, clownfish Marlin works through the deep-rooted anxiety he’s lived with since the death of his wife (sensing a pattern here yet?) as he tries to track down his fish-napped son. WALL-E makes a tender plea for green living by spinning a tale of robots in love. And both Toy Story sequels confront the toys’ inevitable obsolescence as well as their fears of abandonment, taking a page right out of Corinthians.
Each of these films, and most others in between on Pixar’s oeuvre, hurt. They hit home. They’re tactically aimed straight at our emotional sweet spots, productions designed to lead us to one big emotional release in a way that’s authentic rather than crass. Put more straightforward, sadness is an essential component of the Pixar brand; it’s necessary to appreciate the generally net positive outcomes of each of their films. Carl makes it to South America, but he returns from his sojourn having left his house, the physical embodiment of his grieving process, set down upon a scenic cliffside overlook; college-bound Andy ultimately does discard Woody, Buzz, and the gang, passing them on to a child who will play with them and love them as much as he did as a tyke; Sulley and Boo are separated and subsequently reunited in Monsters, Inc.’s yo-yoing climax of farewells and hellos; despite their best efforts, Remy, Linguini, Colette, and Remy’s reconciled rat clan can’t save Gusteau’s from closing, so they decide to strike out on their own in Paris’ restaurant culture.
Pixar didn’t invent the idea of suffusing narratives with complimenting doses of happiness and sadness. That’s been a thing since storytellers first started telling sophisticated stories. (Think about Charlie Chaplin’s The Kid, or Frank Capra’s It’s a Wonderful Life - these movies both toe the line of heartache, but they end on well-earned notes of elation.) It’s certainly something that Disney, Pixar’s corporate overlord parent company has done successfully in the past, a’la Bambi, and if we step outside of the Mouse House, we can compile a laundry list of movies that straddle that exact same kind of emotional fence: Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, A Very Long Engagement, Beasts of the Southern Wild, The Bicycle Thieves, The Fisher King, und so weiter und so fort. (It feels like it’s worth pointing out that the very act of watching a sad movie induces happiness, too.)
But for Pixar, marrying inner pain with outer jubilation reads like a mission statement. Their movies live or die based on how keenly their better and worse emotions are felt***, and how well they synthesize into an altogether singular experience. If you’re reading this, you know that experience: you know that buying a ticket to a Pixar film generally means laughing, choking up, and laughing again, rinse, repeat, reach for a tissue. Arguably, the most acclaimed offerings in their catalogue ride on precisely harmonized waves of emotion, from the Toy Story trilogy to Up. That twenty year road has led us all the way up to Inside Out, the film that articulates through text the Pixar philosophy to filmmaking: A good cry can do a body good.
*Strictly in reference to engaging in commerce rather than their box office success.
**There’s an argument to be made that the slump actually ended with 2013’s Monsters University. It’s a fair enough claim, except that the film relies on a pre-existing property and the structure of the prequel. We’re not talking about drastically exceeded expectations, here.
***Which might explain why the Cars films, perfectly okay on their individual merits, faced a muted reception compared to most other Pixar films.