In the seemingly never-ending battle between art and commerce (a lopsided battle if we’re being honest), Pixar Animation Studios has, over the course of two decades and 14 films, managed to strike a delicate, even precarious, balance, meshing art and commerce into that rarest of rare cinematic hybrids: commercial art, entertaining, educating, and enlightening, often simultaneously. With one or two — or three or more, depending on your perspective — exceptions, Pixar’s remarkable track record remains unmatched by any other studio, animation or otherwise (Pixar’s closest competitor, DreamWorks Animation, long ago chose quantity over quality, only recently suffering a not entirely unexpected drop-off in box-office receipts). Helmed by Pete Doctor (Up, Monsters, Inc.), arguably the second or third most important creative filmmaker at Pixar (behind John Lasseter and Andrew Stanton), Inside Out indelibly captures the flux and flow, the complexities and contradictions, of our often chaotic, anarchic, unruly inner lives, bringing the seemingly abstract (e.g., thoughts, emotions, ideas) into brilliant, surreal life.
Inside Out’s conceptually daring premise centers on Joy (voiced by Amy Poehler), one of five personified emotions, that in turn control and direct the inner life and outer behavior of an eleven-year-old girl, Riley (Kaitlyn Dias). Despite the presence of the four other emotions, Sadness (Phyllis Smith), Fear (Bill Hader), Anger (Lewis Black), and Disgust (Mindy Kaling), Joy occupies the central control panel that guides Riley. With Joy at the helm — a clever stand-in for a filmmaker, if not the filmmaker (Doctor) — Riley’s memories, saved in glowing orbs regularly shipped off via pneumatic tubes to long-term memory storage or the equivalent of a high-end server for special, select core memories, form the basis for Riley’s attitudes and worldview. Along with theme park-inspired “personality islands” (Family, Goofball, Friendship, Hockey, Honesty, etc.), Riley’s Joy-influenced memories make her a happy, relatively well-adjusted eleven-year-old.
Riley’s life, however, changes drastically when her father (Kyle MacLachlan), chasing startup success on the West Coast, abruptly relocates the family, including Riley and her mother (Diane Lane), from the familiar comforts of Minnesota (e.g., a spacious, middle-class homes, lifetime friends, a junior hockey team) for the unfamiliar discomforts of San Francisco. A new home, smaller, cramped, dirty, awaits Riley and her family, as does a new elementary school for Riley and a now distant father, preoccupied with his new startup. As Riley drifts into introspection, willful or otherwise, Joy begins to cede control to Sadness, once more of a nuisance or obstacle than a co-equal member of Riley’s Emotion (Dream) Team. An ill-timed struggle between Joy and Sadness leave both emotions stranded inside the recesses of Riley’s inner mind, first in long-term storage and later in Imagination Land, with little chance of returning to the control room to help Riley re-find herself.
Riley’s outer journey, one colored by inadvertent neglect from her parents, and an unwelcoming, alien school environment, reflects the absence of Joy and Sadness and the newly-in-control Fear, Anger, and Disgust, while Joy, Inside Out’s true protagonist, has a personal journey of her own. For all of her upbeat, positive vibe, she’s something of a power freak, refusing to cede control to the other emotions or by extension, recognizing their validity or legitimacy, their centrality to Riley’s inner life or her personality. Accompanied by Sadness, her natural opposite, Joy undergoes a transformation, the obligatory character arc that — in Doctor and co-director Ronaldo Del Carmen’s hands — never feels obligatory or manipulative, in large part because Doctor, Del Carmen, and their writing partners, Meg LeFauve and Josh Cooley (LeFauve and Cooley receive story credit), make Joy into a well-rounded character, the kind of character typically absent from live-action filmmaking. It’s one key element in Pixar’s recurring, hard-to-duplicate success: Imbuing their personified, anthropomorphized characters with complex inner lives of their own.
While Joy and Sadness’ goal-oriented journey (i.e., getting back to and regaining control of the control room) grounds Inside Out in recognizable, identifiable character arcs, Inside Out positively overflows with some of Pixar’s most inventive, most imaginative world-building, literalized metaphors (e.g., a train of thought), psychological depth (literalized via representations of the subconscious, a memory hole, a dream factory/studio), and the expected, but no less thrilling, assortment of close calls, even closer escapes, stakes-raising setbacks (for both Joy and Riley), and exactly the kind of wonder- and awe-inspiring visual pyrotechnics missing from recent and most likely, future Hollywood blockbusters like Avengers: Age of Ultron or Jurassic World. As long as we have Pixar lighting the cinematic highways and byways of mainstream narrative filmmaking, however, a reason will exist, however sporadically, to celebrate the seemingly unobtainable blend of art and commerce.