After an unwelcome, fallow interregnum during which it seemed to rest its laurels on its vaunted history, animation powerhouse Pixar finally corrects course: Inside Out is the studio's first film in five years (since the masterful Toy Story 3) to live up to the standard we were led to expect - perhaps unrealistically, as it's almost impossible to pull masterpieces out of a hat.
To clarify, Inside Out isn't a masterpiece - the scripting hits a snag halfway through, of which more later - but it is the long-awaited return to first-rate form by the studio. Masterminded by Pixar veteran Pete Docter, whose last outing was the equally genre-defying Up, the new film is entirely set inside an 11-year old's brain, following what happens when Riley's (Kaitlyn Dias) move to San Francisco with her family creates a "perfect storm" of conflicting emotions.
Mr. Docter and his co-director, Ronnie del Carmen, design Riley's brain as a state-of-the-art "control centre" or ship's deck, manned by five key anthropomorphised emotions that take turns in running the machine, but actually mostly run by the chirpy, always-on Joy (a delightful Amy Poehler). But the move sets everyone on edge, and a couple of fumbles by the morose, clumsy Sadness (Phyllis Smith) effectively shut both her and Joy outside the control centre, leaving Riley scared, unbalanced, angry and uncertain of what the future holds now that she's been taken out of her comfort zone.
Shifting between the "inside" and the "outside" of the brain, showing what's going on in Riley's brain to explain why she is behaving the way she does in life, Mr. Docter's film never really lets on how extraordinarily layered its tale actually is. That is partly by design - the "eye candy" is as wondrously drawn and detailed as anything in the Pixar canon, from the idea of each memory as a multi-coloured globe stored away in an endless library to forgetfulness as a huge abyss into which blackened, ashen memories are thrown into, through the idea of the "train of thought" that is an actual train travelling through the brain.
The visuals help translate with almost effortless immediacy the complexity of the concepts behind the plot. But the "story first" ethos of the studio is again put to good use in the expert threading of emotion with experience as Riley, Joy, Sadness, the anxious Fear (Bill Hader), the distant Disgust (Mindy Kaling) and the forceful Anger (a brilliantly cast Lewis Black) learn to navigate the "real world" with its sudden changes.
What's most impressive is just how Messrs. Docter and Del Carmen, and co-writers Meg Lefauve and Josh Cooley, turn out to perfectly capture the volatile, ephemeral nature of memory and thought and how such fleeting, apparently casual moments become so massively central to our personality - Inside Out gets just right that sense of gangly awkwardness that every tween and teenager goes through at some point, and makes it very clear that just because you grow up you don't automatically get all the answers to all the questions.
Still, I do have some issues with the script, especially in the film's second act, as Joy and Sadness look for a way back to "headquarters" and team up with Riley's long-lost imaginary friend Bing Bong (Richard Kind). Their trip through memory lane sidesteps into some overly Disney-ish, kiddie-oriented strands that seem custom-tailored to maintain younger viewers interested.
It's not out of character for the film nor is it suggesting of any "slumming", and it makes all the sense in the plot; but for a studio that prided itself in assuming the best and the smartest from its audiences, it seems a little bit like hedging its bets in a film whose conceptualism may have seemed a bit too far-fetched for the marketing folk at Disney. But if that's the price to pay to get back to Pixar's top-notch form, hey, I'll take it any day of the week, and Inside Out fully deserves to be up there with the studio's best output.
Voice cast Amy Poehler, Phyllis Smith, Richard Kind, Bill Hader, Lewis Black, Mindy Kaling, Kaitlyn Dias, Diane Lane, Kyle MacLachlan
Director Pete Docter; co-director Ronnie del Carmen; screenwriters Mr. Docter, Meg Lefauve and Josh Cooley from a story by Messrs. Docter and Del Carmen; directors of photography Patrick Lin and Kim White (colour); composer Michael Giacchino; designer Ralph Eggleston; editor Kevin Nolting; producer Jonas Rivera; production companies Walt Disney Pictures and Pixar Animation Studios
screened June 12th 2015, NOS Alvaláxia 5, Lisbon, distributor press screening