In 2010, Pixar were sitting on the longest running streak in cinematic history. In particular, they had just created four stone-cold classics on the bounce: Ratatouille, Wall-E, Up and Toy Story 3. They were the studio that could do no wrong and the cinema world looked eagerly to their upcoming slate.
Then came the decline. Cars 2 was the first (and remains the only) Pixar film to earn a negative rating on RottenTomatoes, the web’s foremost film review aggregator. Brave failed to arrest the slide and even Monsters University seemed to be missing the spark. Suddenly Pixar had made three sequels in four years, with more on the horizon (Finding Dory, Toy Story 4, Cars 3 and The Incredibles 2 are all in pre-production). One of their flagship original creations, Newt, was mysteriously cancelled, while their other one, The Good Dinosaur, was delayed by over a year because of production concerns. As a result, in 2014, Pixar didn’t release a film for the first time in nine years. Everyone held their breath: was this the end of Pixar’s greatness?
As it turns out – and thank goodness! – the answer is a categorical No. The only proof that’s needed is in cinemas right now. In fact, one could make an argument that Inside Out is Pixar’s greatest film yet. It may not quite reach the creative heights of Monsters Inc, the emotional depths of Up or the exuberance of Ratatouille, but it aligns those three qualities to stunning effect. By the time the credits roll, it’s burst from its cocoon as a near-perfect masterpiece.
Admittedly, it does take a while to get there. Its smooth, sugary production design and jabbering 2D characters are initially more reminiscent of a Dreamworks production (you know, one of those infinite interchangeable films where loud-mouthed animals voiced by celebrities make endless pop-culture jokes that are dated by the time the movie reaches home release). Its narrative is so daringly slight that for a while it’s easy to mistake the story for being simplistic. Indeed, more than any of Pixar’s output, this film really struggles to marry its kid-friendly story to its adult concepts. This is partly because the plot is so bare, but largely because its themes are so audaciously mature.
It is frankly wonderful to see Pixar push back from the flat fortune cookie platitudes that are peddled by so many of their contemporaries. They beautifully addressed the If you believe in yourself, you can do anything! mantra with Monsters University, and now they’re taking on an even deeper philosophy, the one that says You should try to be happy all the time!
Inside Out is about emotional growth and the complexity of our feelings. It’s an entire film themed around sadness. It discusses the loss of childhood imagination, the difference between sadness and depression, and the potential banality of happiness. It shows us the extent to which our lives and actions are driven by our fluctuating emotional states. It conjectures fundamental reasons for sarcasm and denial and apathy. And it does all this with an astonishing lightness of touch, exploring every idea with character and action. It is never preachy, never boring, and it never tells what it’s trying to show. The result is a film that keeps younger children distracted while older children from ten to a-hundred-and-ten learn life lessons that hardly anyone dares to articulate.
Meanwhile, it’s everything that great Pixar strives to be: in particular, it’s hilarious and practically oozing with fevered imagination. It’s gleefully satisfying to see so many elements of the mind brought to life with such ingenuity and accuracy: memories, dreams, imagination, abstract thought, the subconscious. It reaches the point where you start to think: oh, so that’s why my brain does that! There are so many insights on human behaviour – enough to ensure multiple repeat viewings.
Being Pixar, it is of course heart-rending. It’s an innate facet of being human that you cry at the first six minutes of Up, but I also leaked tears when the toys get given away at the end of Toy Story 3 and especially when Eve reviews her security footage to see that Wall-E’s been looking after her the whole time. For Inside Out, it’s as if the Pixar bigwigs got together and asked themselves: how can we make a film with even more emotions? Their solution: make a film where the characters literally are emotions.
As a result, I cried harder at this than at any of their films so far. Inside Out shows us that loss is an important part of growing up. Sometimes you’ll want to mourn change, it tells us, and that’s okay. Sadness isn’t wrong.
What a beautiful thing to say.