There is joy. There is sadness. There are many other kinds of emotions that were running through this reviewer’s head as he sat down to watch the latest animated extravaganza from Pixar Animation Studios, Inside Out. But mostly, as the film drew to a close, there was profound indifference.
I used to love going to see a Pixar film in theaters, especially on opening weekend if the parents would allow it. Starting in 1995 with Toy Story and up until about 2009’s Up, the Emeryville, CA-based company would thrill me and my fellow friends & filmgoers alike with their technical mastery of animation, endearing characters and unconventional storytelling that usually provided a breath of fresh air against whatever else was playing in the multiplex that day. My personal favorite Pixar films, including the first two Toy Story films, Finding Nemo, The Incredibles and especially WALL-E, all possess a distinct tone and filmmaking voice that is rare to find in mainstream entertainment geared toward children (I also have a certain predilection for the first Cars, an opinion not that popular with Pixar aficionados but one I am certainly willing to stand my ground on; the film’s dichotomous themes of the natural landscape vs. industrialized convenience still stick with me years after release).
Nowadays, however, I’m just as likely to spend my time catching up on great films that were made before I was even born, like Orson Welles’ Touch of Evil and Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner, two vastly different films in different genres which provide the same kind of confident tone and technical excellence that previously endeared me to Pixar films. I will say, however, that I don’t think either Touch or Blade warrant full-on classic status; while there is much about those films that has been influential in Hollywood filmmaking ever since they were released, I find narrative and structural problems present in both at times that are hard to overlook. But I digress.
If there is said to be a “turning point” in the quality of Pixar’s films when the ship started to turn south, it may be (controversial opinion incoming) Toy Story 3. While the idea of a trilogy-capping entry in the franchise that deals with series character Andy heading off to college and leaving the toys behind for good sounds like a surefire winner that will bring all the feels (is that #feels?), in practice, it became a film that, in the words of Chicago Tribune critic Michael Phillips, “looks and plays like an exceptionally slick and confident product, as opposed to a magical blend of commerce and popular art.” For me personally as a lover of all things Woody & Buzz since I first saw the original Toy Story in theatres when I was only 2 years old, the film’s famous (infamous?) final act where the toys are nearly burned alive in a garbage incinerator only to be rescued at the last minute by the Little Green Men (THE CLAWWWWWWW) struck me as emotional pandering and a classic example of what is now termed the “Disney Death”, wherein a main character looks to be in life-threatening peril, only for a deus ex machina or other plot machination keeps them alive, because, y’know, this is a kid’s film (sigh). I am constantly reminded of the viral video prank a young teen pulled on his mother a couple years after the film’s release on DVD wherein he edited the copy his mother was watching so that the film bleakly seems to end just as Woody and pals are consumed by the fire. Say what you will about taking responsibility for practical jokes; in my view, Toy Story 3 couldn’t (and shouldn’t) have ended any other way. Whether that makes me a cruel-hearted sadist out to toy with people’s emotions or just a believer in consistent storytelling is up to you.
Regardless of whether or not you agree that the third Toy Story was disappointing or not, perhaps we can all agree that what came next represented an even larger crisis of confidence in Pixar: Cars 2. Even as a fan of the original Cars, I will attest to the fact that a sequel was not something anyone but studio heads and toy-loving little kids really wanted. The first Pixar film to ever acquire a rotten rating on Rotten Tomatoes, it reportedly doubled down on everything the majority of Pixar fans hated about the first one: more weird world-building (how did the cars come to be sentient creatures?), a slight emphasis on conservative values (yeah, NASCAR!) and more Tow Mater (“ew, Larry the Cable Guy”). I myself never saw the full film; I watched the first 10 minutes of it with a group of kids at a daycare I was supervising, and that was enough to make me realize that this would be just another generic sequel.
Besides Up, Cars 2 was the first Pixar film I wasn’t entirely interested seeing in theatres. I completely skipped Brave even after it was released on home video, and due to reports of behind-the-scenes hand-wringing about replacing the director’s original vision with a more generic story, I remain just fine without another Disney Princess in my life. I did catch Monsters University with my folks on DVD, and despite its positive message with regards to being OK with being ordinary, I considered the film in the line of Cars 2 as a sequel that did not need to be made, and a slight stain on the legacy of the first Monsters, Inc. film.
So when Pixar first announced the trailer and concept of Inside Out, I was more cautiously optimistic than usual when it came to the studio’s output. I found myself with critics who had written about “Pixar’s sad decline” and even the state of computer animation as a whole. I wondered whether Pixar still had it in them to produce an animated masterpiece on the level of WALL-E or even a less serious movie like A Bug’s Life. After Inside Out debuted at various film festivals earlier this year and received the highest critical praise the studio had received since Toy Story 3 five years prior, I became genuinely excited at the prospect of adding another great piece of cinema to my Blu-ray collection.
Alas, when I finally sat down to watch what was supposedly a return to form for the studio, my excitement gradually turned to boredness, which slowly turned to slight annoyance. The concept of five different emotions who control a young girl’s brain contains so much potential, but my mind started to wander as more and more questions about the plot’s mechanics started to weigh on me. The five emotions are Joy, Sadness, Anger, Disgust and Fear, so the viewer would expect that these anthropomorphized emotions would solely act like… well, themselves. Instead, at multiple points throughout the runtime, Anger acts calm, Fear acts relieved and Joy acts annoyed, all at the convenience of the plot. Think of it this way: if you were the personification of Joy, wouldn’t you be all sunshine and rainbows 24/7, nonstop? If you were the personification of Fear, wouldn’t you be constantly afraid of everything all the time? The animators make the emotions act more like humans with human life’s constant ups and downs, but this essentially kills the very concept the movie is founded on. Other viewers may say that this is a weak criticism because how else is the audience supposed to relate to the girl’s emotions, but who says the audience must relate to the emotions? A more daring Pixar film would have taken things to greater extremes, challenging viewers to identify with characters who may not be all that pleasant to be around. I’m definitively NOT saying that a Pixar family film needs to go all postmodern anti-hero Taxi Driver on viewers, but there is some middle ground to be played with here, and the studio could have delivered a more creative film in the process. As it is, things are pretty much played straight, to Inside Out’s detriment.
The main criticism I have for the characters here are the tag team of Joy and Sadness. During the first 30-45 minutes, Sadness performs an action (I won’t spoil what) that Joy must constantly fix in order to keep Riley’s emotions in check. The first time Sadness does this, it’s understandable that Joy would reprimand her for doing so. The second time, OK, people make mistakes more than once. By the fifth or sixth time, I wondered why Joy (or, more appropriately, Anger) didn’t blow a fuse and lock Sadness in a cage for constantly disrupting events. It was like watching a toddler break a nice vase, a parent giving him or her a slap on the wrist saying “Don’t do that!”, and then the toddler continues to break five or six more vases, each time only receiving a slap on the wrist. It gets boring and then grating, and you wish you could enter the world of the film to cap a couple of bullets in Sadness’ face (OK, I kid, I kid). Again, this is poor characterization on the part of director Pete Docter, who I honestly expected better from after directing Monsters Inc. and Up, not to mention co-writing the story for WALL-E (did I mention how much I love WALL-E?).
Finally, Inside Out never quite tickles the viewer’s own funny bone or onionize their tear ducts (is that a word?) in the way the advertising and critics may suggest. There actually are some genuinely hilarious moments scattered throughout the film’s 102-minute runtime, including a dinner scene where viewers get a peek inside more than one human character’s mind and an end-credits “blooper” reel that possibly drew the biggest guffaws at the screening I attended. But for every joke that lands, there are 2 or 3 that completely miss or just provoke a brief “heh”. A character that shows up at the movie’s midpoint is humorous the first time viewers meet him, but subsequently infects the film with more kid-friendly slapstick humor than I would’ve expected from a studio that frequently targets their output for kids and adults. Likewise, the third act where events come to an emotional head and a main character sits down and cries in close-up in front of the camera didn’t turn on my waterworks at all. I found myself straining to feel as sad as the filmmakers wanted me to feel, and the emotions (both on the screen and in the audience) felt forced. This happens again during the last 10 minutes of the film, and I still didn’t really feel like crying. Yes, it’s sad when a child cries and lets out pent-up emotions, but simply sticking a crying child or other cute character in front of the camera and expecting the audience to feel something strikes me as more emotional pandering, of the aforementioned Toy Story 3 type.
Make no mistake, I did not hate Inside Out. On the contrary, there was much to like about a film that ultimately sends a message of the fact that Sadness must be just as much a part of our lives as Joy is. In this way, it is much like Monsters University, providing both child and grown-up viewers with an empowering mindset after they leave their theater seats. But also like Monsters University, Inside Out struggles to cross that finish line during the first three-quarters of its runtime. For a film that is all about what goes on inside people’s heads, the story of Inside Out is ironically not all that well thought out. As Pixar moves forward with the upcoming The Good Dinosaur and next year’s Finding Dory, I find myself still wishing for the studio that once was. Until then, I can only deal with watching animated films that have me leaving the theater with a mixed bag of emotions.