by Brendan Foley
When I say that Pixar has been breaking my heart for my entire life, I mean that almost entirely literally. I was five years old when we went to go see Toy Story in the theater for the first time, and I still remember the sheer bafflement I felt when we arrived at the scene where all sound drops out save for a single mournful Randy Newman tune playing as Buzz, our loveable, hilarious Buzz (who had the same voice as Santa Claus!), came crashing to earth. It was like the theater floor vanished out from under my feet.
A few years later, it was the Jessie the Yodeling Cowgirl song. I don’t even have to write anything else, right? You’re already humming that song in your head, already feeling the old heartbreak start to sting all over again.
WALL-E and EVE’s dance, the final page of the adventure book, that goddamn furnace scene, and so many, many more.
There’s a reason the Pixar canon of classics endures while so many other children’s films, good or otherwise, are shuffled off and forgotten. Pixar, alone among the major American animation companies going right now, understand the importance of heartbreak, of sadness. Oh sure, other animated films will yank at your heartstrings and make things tough on the characters, but Pixar alone is comfortable with the quiet, with the melancholy, with, well, sadness.
Which brings us to Pete Docter’s Inside Out, new on Blu. A masterpiece from start-to-finish, the only reason Inside Out isn’t already my favorite Pixar film ever is that some of the others have a decade, if not more, of accumulated affection.
By now, you should know the set-up: Every person has five emotions in control of their heads, those emotions being Joy, Sadness, Fear, Disgust, and Anger. The emotions all work to guide a person through life, backed by a huge system of the mind that includes features such as the Long Term Memory Storage, an actual Train of Thought, Dream Productions, etc.
Inside Out’s focus is Riley, a happy-go-lucky eleven-year-old who finds out in the opening moments of the film that her family is relocating to San Francisco from Minnesota. Riley’s dominant emotion is Joy (voiced by actual miracle-person Amy Poehler), a manic pixie that spends her every moment trying to minimize the other emotions, especially Sadness (Phyllis Smith), from influencing Riley. But as the move puts more and more stresses on Riley, Sadness feels compelled to keep influencing her memories and actions. In trying to silence Sadness, Joy gets them both accidentally tossed out of Headquarters, and the two must trek back through Riley’s mind to save the girl from falling into deep depression.
Inside Out has a ton to say about emotion, about memory, about growing up, but it never once feels like any kind of lecture. The metaphors are all laid out for you clear as day, and Docter is confident that he never needs to stop the film to explain what he’s getting at. The script for the film is an absolute machine of set-up and payoff, with dizzyingly well-constructed comic set-pieces and recurring gags that only accumulate as the film goes on.
It helps that both the voice cast and the animation crews deliver unworldly strong performances. Poehler and Smith are perfectly suited to their characters, and their contrasting comic energies make Sadness and Joy’s journey a delight. Mindy Kaling as Disgust, Bill Hader as Fear, and Lewis Black as Anger all turn in sterling work as well, etching their characters in quick, broad strokes that allow for both giant laughs and big pathos.
And the animation teams deliver truly astonishing work, crafting both the huge and abstract world of the mind and the exaggerated-but-realistic ‘real’ world. Pixar has never been interested in photo-realistic characters, preferring to blend hyper-detailed and exact textures and locations to the broadly styled characters. That style reaches its apex in Inside Out, merging characters that look and behave like they could have strolled out of an old Looney Toons cartoon (there’s a late-in-the-film gag involving Kaling’s Disgust that is pure Road Runner) with gorgeously rendered skins, objects and locations.
Blu-ray only enhances this experience, as you can pick up all the subtleties of design in perfect detail. One of my favorite touches is that the skin of each of the emotions is composed of what appears to be hundreds, if not thousands, if not straight-up millions, of what look like little felt bubbles. Even perfunctory shots like a character picking up an item and handing it to another are wholly lovely masterworks of style and craft, and I do not want to even imagine how much time these poor people had to spend at their computers putting it together. I can barely sit still long enough to write this review, let alone assemble every scrap and line of code for a feature length film.
Nowhere does this perfect melding of form and content meet as beautifully as it does with Bing Bong (Richard Kind, a great character actor who secures a kind of immortality with his performance here), a discarded imaginary friend from Riley’s childhood that tags along with Joy and Sadness. Pixar kept Bing Bong out of all marketing, so I’ll tread lightly except to say:
Bing Bong will break your heart. And the moment when he breaks your heart (and you will not miss or mistake) kicks off an extended climax that is thrilling and funny and inventive…and guaranteed to leave you a helpless puddle of tears.
It sure did for me. And I was warned in advanced by many, many people, and even going in with my guard up, was still helpless against the film. And while I think the punch the final fifteen minutes of the film pack would still hurt, regardless of when I saw it, there’s a special potency to this particular time in my life.
See, Inside Out contrasts the gleeful, carefree days of Riley’s infancy and early childhood (her Joyful days, natch) with the realities of sadness and loss that come into her life as she gets older. Growing up, the film says, means giving up innocence and accepting that unrestrained joy can only exist in the past.
My sister had her first baby over a year ago, and the experience of watching that life take shape has been among the most remarkable in my entire life. There are moments where I watch her watch the world and I feel an awe I can’t describe. Everything is new and strange and exciting and scary and beautiful, all at once.
The only other time I’ve been able to share in something like that was with my youngest sister, who is ten years younger than me. I still remember those days of her youth, days when she was little more than a ball of energy ripping through the house only to collapse somewhere with chocolate stains around her mouth. Sometimes they’ll dress my niece in my little sister’s clothes and I’ll feel a love in my chest so strong I think my heart is going to explode right there.
Growing up doesn’t just mean accepting that you are getting older, it’s accepting that other people are getting older too. It means being at peace with the wonderful, kind young woman my sister is becoming, with all the messiness that comes with that process and treasuring those moments of unadulterated joy that exist with my niece while they last.
Sadness defines Joy and Joy defines Sadness, and neither can exist without the other. Inside Out communicates that idea, a simple yet impossibly complex notion, and does it within the funniest, possibly the most entertaining film of the year. Go watch it.