Among the many anniversaries coming in 2015 is Toy Story's 20th anniversary. While it may just seem like an honor bestowed upon a really good film, it is also an indicator for Pixar's growth and legacy. There was a time where that film could have been a fluke. Yet 14 movies later, they are still willing to charm us and reinvent the wheel, making us sympathize with new things whether anthropomorphic or abstract. This is why director Pete Docter's Inside Out feels not just like a film, but as its own meta retrospective on the first two decades of a studio that has a widely regarded almost perfect track record. Thankfully, it still is a really good example about why Pixar is leagues ahead of its competitors.
At its core, the film is about a little girl named Riley (Kaitlyn Dias) and her emotions. No, seriously. There are literal embodiments of five central emotions including Anger (Lewis Black), Fear (Bill Hader), Disgust (Mindy Kaling), Sadness (Phyllis Smith), and ringleader Joy (Amy Poehler). Together, they control how she feels through a series of life changing events including moving from Minnesota to San Francisco, California and starting at a new school. From there, there's a series of control issues that lead to an adventure through the mind. Everything from long term memory to imaginary friends are explored with typical Pixar creativity as the studio challenges animations and preconceived notions that audiences already have. The results blend into a fascinating study of anxiety in youth as well as how our brains uncontrollably change over time.
As trite as it is to say, the film works also as a study of emotions. With the studio in top form, they produce a film that manages to slide hilarious gags next to frightful peril and overwhelming excitement. It is a film so full of life that the study of how emotions aren't always that simple turns into something more profound. While it is at times a little too manic for its own good, it still manages to reflect brain growth in all of its impressive detail. It may not look like a brain that we have seen before, but it does manage to make more sense as a result. It's still funny enough for those looking for fun, but complicated enough for those wanting to flex their muscles. Thankfully, Pixar doesn't buckle under the high concept, resulting in something beautiful.
Among the core reasons it works is the voice cast, who embody their roles perfectly. There's a special note to imaginary friend Bing Bong (Richard Kind), whose sympathetic role calls for some of the film's most tragic and beautiful scenes. As he guides him through the more creative side of Inside Out, the story evolves into something astounding for mainstream animation. Thankfully, there's Joy and Sadness; who together make an unexpected team of effective chemistry. As they become more central to the plot, their development blends together and impacts something interesting. The abstract becomes realized in manners that suggest how little effort most put into their stories. All the while, it feels like a study on how directors and writers of Pixar pull on our emotions, making us feel certain ways through slight adjustments. This film has layers, and is essentially why it works.
It is also a revelation that after 20 years, Pixar continues to pose the question "Which one is the best?" not with an impressive early start, but with an ongoing catalog of impressive hits. After a considered dry spell following Toy Story 3, it looks like the studio is back with another hit and a reminder to what they do best. It may be in some ways the most literal interpretation of this idea, but it proves that the studio doesn't do the most obvious things simply. They have to challenge viewers to understand why they care. They have to be taken someplace new and given an experience that will resonate long after the credits have rolled. So while argument will start on if Inside Out is capable of being better than 80% of Pixar's films, it can at least hold the honor of being another great entry that reminds us where creativity can really take us.