Up until 2009, Pixar was where you went in Hollywood for original filmmaking. The fact that their movies were animated was merely a byproduct. The studio with the freshest ideas and the most novel concepts churned out great, inventive films one after another: “Finding Nemo,” “The Incredibles,” “Cars,” “Ratatouille,” “Wall·E,” “Up.”
These films were superlative not just because they told terrific stories and featured characters who mattered to us, but because they were unlike anything we’d ever seen before.
Then a curious thing happened. Almost overnight, Pixar stories became derivative – stale, even.
We got three sequels which, even when exquisitely well-made like “Toy Story 3,” lacked the vitality of the originals. “Brave” seemed like a self-conscious rebuttal to the Disney princess tradition, and as such felt more about the things it was not than the things it was. (Not to mention, it essentially stole the plot of another Disney animated flick, 2003’s “Brother Bear.”)
Suddenly, Pixar movies seemed less like ingenuity and more a commodity.
I’m happy to report the latest, “Inside Out,” is a return to form. It’s hardly among the top tier of Pixar movies, but it’s dizzy with wondrous ideas, interesting things to see and places we’d like to visit.
It all takes place inside the head of one kid, Riley (voice by Kaitlyn Dias). The idea is that a person’s personality is ruled by five emotions: joy, sadness, fear, anger and disgust. Each is represented by little cartoon entities, who collaborate and clash with each other and this in turn governs how the person behaves.
They sit in an isolated central headquarters in the mind, watching a TV screen and seeing the world as their person does. Experiences are recorded as memories, which are glass-like orbs, which the emotions help collate, store and recall. The most vital memories form the core of the person’s being.
It’s a rather cerebral concept, but one that small children can take to easily. (My 4- and almost-2-year-olds sat rapt the entire time.) It helps that the emotions each have distinct identities themselves.
Joy (the irrepressible Amy Poehler), a pixie-like waif, is the dominant emotion for Riley, acting as major domo and subtly ordering the others around. Anger (Lewis Black) is a little red rager who literally blows his top with fire. Disgust (Mindy Kaling) is both protective and disdainful, and Fear (Bill Hader) is the kvetching voice of caution.
Then there’s Sadness, terrifically voiced by (Phyllis Smith), who played a somewhat similar character on TV’s “The Office.” A purple nerdy type, Sadness can’t seem to summon much enthusiasm for anything, mostly likes to just lie around and complain, and has the nasty habit of touching the memory orbs and infecting them with her mope.
“Crying helps me slow down and obsess over the weight of life’s problems,” Sadness drones.
But Riley’s parents (Diane Lane and Kyle MacLachlan) move the family from Minnesota to San Francisco, and their daughter struggles to fit in. Joy heroically tries to enforce happiness, but this only makes things worse. Then through a series of events, she and Sadness get exiled to the hinterlands of Riley’s subconscious, leaving the three remaining emotions to deal.
I enjoyed the filmmakers’ elegant depiction of Riley’s mind – and those of others, for we get to go inside the heads of other humans, too, where the same five emotions exist in different iterations. Director Pete Docter (“Up”) co-wrote the script with Meg LeFauve and Josh Cooley. Ronaldo Del Carmel is credited as co-director.
Along their journey to try to get back to HQ, Joy and Sadness have various sorts of adventures, wandering through Riley’s dreams and finding out what happens to faded memories – even an old imaginary friend from Riley’s toddlerhood, Bing Bong, vividly voiced by Richard Kind. We learn that each emotion exists for an important reason, even if it isn’t instantly obvious.
“Inside Out” is a fun, colorful movie that also offers a little insight into each of us might tick. Pixar has got their mojo back.