There was a time when Pixar was the undisputed king of animation. Disney’s hand-drawn empire had wilted, and Dreamworks, aside from the occasional Shrek movie, wasn’t a serious competitor yet. From 2001 to 2010, Pixar basically couldn’t miss. They were like the Rolling Stones from 1968 – 1973 or Martin Scorsese from 1975-1980 or early 2000s Tiger Woods. Pixar spent those years achieving greatness and then (more challengingly) sustaining it. They perfected the balance between family friendly moral fables and sharp-as-a-tack adult-accessible comedy writing. During that time, the studio released Monsters, Inc.; Finding Nemo; The Incredibles; Cars; Ratatouille; Wall-E, Up, and Toy Story 3. Eight films, seven totally original properties, only one truly mediocre offering (Cars, which, you know, everyone’s entitled to their occasional clunker). An amazing run. An amazing run that started to wobble at the dawn of the new decade.
First came Cars 2, the ill-advised sequel to the not-all-that-great-in-the-first-place original that seemed way more like an excuse to produce Hot Wheels knock-offs and keep Larry the Cable Guy’s career breathing for another couple of years (with apologies to those Prilosec commercials). Cars 2 wasn’t just a weak film, it was a signal that something was off at a place that had once blazed with originality and vision.
In 2012 we got Brave, which was an original property only in the sense that that exact set of characters doing things in that exact setting had not already put on film. In every other way, it felt like a generic retread of more interesting stories. In 2013 came Monsters University, a prequel to Monsters, Inc. that offered about half the cleverness and thrills of the original. I started to feel like Pixar had been knocked off its perch by the How to Train Your Dragons and Despicable Mes of the world, and I wasn’t sure it would recover any time soon.
Then, blessedly, I took my son to see Inside Out last weekend.
Forgive me for doubting you, oh great and mighty Pixar!
Ok, actually, I had good reason to doubt you, but you came through this time in a big way.
Inside Out is the story of a young girl name Riley and the metaphorized emotions that live inside the control room that is her mind. Joy (Amy Poehler), Sadness (Phyllis Smith), Disgust (Mindy Kaling), Anger (Lewis Black), and Fear (Bill Hader) work together, more or less, to navigate Riley’s young life. When a major life change occurs, things get complicated, and the emotions have to scramble to figure things out. That’s all I’ll say about plot. If you haven’t seen the movie, I want you to go in fresh because it is absolutely brilliant, and most of its brilliance is tied up in the ingenious execution of its admittedly high-minded concept. The way in which the writers and animators manage to maintain a clear sense of what’s happening even as we’re constantly moving from the inside of Riley’s mind to what she’s experiencing externally is a high-wire act, and the fact that we barely notice the movement as it’s happening is a testament to the balance director Pete Docter was able to so skillfully strike.
The jokes land, the performances are sharp, and the emotional punches find their mark every time. You know how, in the first fifteen minutes of Up, Pixar basically created a wordless short film that somehow captured the complexity of human relationships, the pain of loss, the hope offered by devotion, and the ache of loneliness? Or how, at the end of Toy Story 3, they somehow get the wistfulness of aging so perfectly right that it feels like your childhood is ending all over again?
Yeah, well, Inside Out takes Pixar’s knack for emotional insight and turns it up to eleven. Tears came to my eyes half a dozen times during this movie because on at least that many occasions, Inside Out gets something exactly right about what it is to be young and frustrated, to watch your child grow up, or to feel those bittersweet pangs that come with putting aside the simplicity of childhood.
Watching Pixar return to the vibrant creativity that gave us their greatest works (yes, I’m gonna give you a full ranking before I’m done here) was a thrill. When they’re on their game, Pixar is a factory that manufactures wonder. So here’s to hoping that Inside Out is the start of a new golden age. And yeah, I’m aware that after The Good Dinosaur this Thanksgiving, we’re gonna get a run of sequels (Finding Dory, Toy Story 4, The Incredibles 2, Cars 3), so maybe my hope will be snuffed out soon enough.
But Inside Out is a reminder that when Pixar is on its game, nobody’s better. This movie proves they’ve still got it in them. I just hope they see fit to let “it” out more consistently from now on.
I told you I’d give you my Pixar film ranking before I was done, so here goes (and yeah, this is unnecessary, but I’m a list guy and I’ve got a platform, so shut it):
- Finding Nemo
- Wall – E
- Monsters, Inc.
- Toy Story
- Inside Out
- Toy Story 3
- The Incredibles
- Up (I feel like this one needs a disclaimer: the first half = perfect; the second half = a goofy mess
- Toy Story 2
- A Bug’s Life
- Monsters University
- Cars 2
The first 7 aren’t separated by a lot, and Inside Out could very well move up the list as time goes on. Go ahead and hit me up with your favorite Pixar offering (or heck, rank all 15) in the comments!
And go see Inside Out, for the love of all that’s decent!