Review: “Inside Out” brings back original Pixar charm, as director Pete Docter recounts ‘brainstorm’ that sparked the idea

in Disney, Movies, Pixar, Reviews

Inside Out is the first feature-length Pixar release since 2013’s Monsters University and the studio’s first non-sequel since 2012’s Brave. Much of the blame for such a long gap between movies can be placed on the delay of The Good Dinosaur, originally scheduled to hit theaters last year, but which has now been pushed back to the fall of 2016 due to development problems.

Prior to that, the Disney-owned animation company had been reliably churning out a movie per year for almost a decade. Beyond that stumble in prolificacy, many fans and critics have noted a marked decline in the quality of Pixar’s recent output (its 2011 offering, Cars 2, was its first—and only, so far—movie to earn a “rotten” on the RottenTomatoes.com TomatoMeter). All these worries rest heavily on the shoulders of Inside Out as it approaches its June 19th release date. Fortunately for Pixar, Disney, and their countless devotees, Inside Out proves to have been worth the wait.

I saw Inside Out last week at the Los Angeles Film Festival, accompanied by a pre-screening discussion between the film’s director Pete Docter and the event’s moderator, film critic Elvis Mitchell.

During the half-hour chat, Docter (who previously helmed both Monsters, Inc. and Up) recounted his early influences: a childhood spent loving Disneyland, Looney Tunes, and The Muppets, and admiring animation directors such as Chuck Jones and Tex Avery. He remembered his first real animation experience making flipbooks as a kid, a tradition he continues to this day as holiday gifts. Docter then recalled getting hired during Pixar’s fledgling days as an animation studio under then-owner Steve Jobs, a frightening period during which creative director John Lasseter fired half the company. Obviously things improved after that, and the rest is history.

According to Docter, movie-making at Pixar is “simultaneously a democracy and a director-driven process”, with the creative leads very much in charge but always open to considering the ideas of their coworkers and underlings. When asked about the specifics of putting together a Pixar movie, he emphasized the importance of pacing in editing, contrast in design, and the element of surprise in storytelling—an example of the latter being Woody’s match unexpectedly blowing out during the climax of the first Toy Story. He went on to discuss how Pixar ‘s film tend to reflect themes that their creators care deeply about—for him, Monsters, Inc. was about love of work and Up was about the desire to escape. Inside Out, Docter says, was inspired by his daughter having turned eleven around the time he was brainstorming ideas for his next feature.

“Brainstorm” is an oddly appropriate word to use when describing the plot of Inside Out, the tale of personified incarnations of five major emotions residing in—and controlling—the mind of a little girl named Riley: Joy (voiced by the always-bubbly Amy Poehler), Sadness (The Office’s Phyllis Smith), Anger (comedian Lewis Black), Fear (Bill Hader), and Disgust (Mindy Kaling).

(As a side note, the premise brings to mind the now-defunct EPCOT attraction Cranium Command, and had Pete Docter’s introduction included a Q&A session I might have asked if that had any influence on the movie.)

Regardless, at the beginning of the story, Riley’s thus-far happy life is thrown into upheaval when her wilderness-and-ice-hockey-loving family moves from rural Minnesota to a run-down house in urban San Francisco to follow her father’s career. Forced to adjust to a new life, a new school, and new friends, Riley’s emotions have a bit of a meltdown. As a result, Joy and Sadness—two characters at odds with each other from the get-go—are accidentally ejected from the mind’s “control center” and must traverse the often-bleak landscape of Riley’s crumbling psyche in order to get back to work and restore balance to her emotional state.

As to the movie’s quality: I’m very glad to report that Inside Out represents something of a return to form for Pixar. While never quite achieving the glorious highs of the studio’s absolute best efforts, Inside Out is reliably entertaining and often hilariously funny throughout, and is unsurprisingly (get those tissues ready) also a bit of a tearjerker.

The lead actors are all wonderful, and the supporting cast—including Diane Lane and Kyle MacLachlan as Mom and Dad, respectively—all turn in warm and charming performances. A special note must be made here for experienced character actor Richard Kind, who pops up as a memorably heartbreaking character who, to my knowledge, has not been featured in any of the marketing, so I’ll do my part to let you discover him on your own.

When all is said and done, Inside Out may have you reflecting on your own emotions, and an important lesson that’s learned by the main characters before the end, one that Docter allows to play out in visuals, without comment or expository dialogue — a smart move that shouldn’t have surprised me, considering the film’s pedigree. Mostly, the movie revisits familiar but welcome Pixar themes like teamwork and the importance of family, but explores these ideas so well that I have no doubt families will enjoy seeing it in theaters this weekend, not to mention many times thereafter.

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