Isn't it nice to see Pixar back on top again? The stunning critical and commercial success of Inside Out – which, other than the muddled Brave, is the first non-sequel the studio has released in six years (since Up, also directed by Pete Docter) – is a welcome sign that what audiences really want from Pixar isn't cute characters or toy-friendly franchises, but solid storytelling and genuine emotion.
After the gut-wrenching conclusion of Toy Story 3, the studio floundered. Newt was shelved because it was too much like Blue Sky Studios' Rio. The Good Dinosaur was postponed several times. And if Cars 2, Brave, and Monsters University had anything in common, it was a distinct lack of inventiveness. For a moment, it seemed like Pixar had reached its pinnacle, and there was nowhere to go but down.
The reason why Inside Out works so well is, I think, because the Pixar powers-that-be finally woke up to realize that emotional storytelling, packed with ideas, was literally the studio's brand. And Inside Out is indeed packed with ideas, the story is tightly structured, and, well, the emotions are right there on the poster: Joy, Sadness, Anger, Disgust, and Fear – all walking, talking personifications of the feelings of an 11-year-old girl named Riley who struggles with the loss of her cozy Minnesota childhood when her family relocates to crowded, stressful San Francisco.
I'll hold off on saying much more about the plot, as the less you know about it, the more pleasant its surprises will be. All I can say is that Docter and his co-writers Meg LeFauve and Josh Cooley have really pushed their imaginations to the limit. The world inside Riley's head is filled with so many manifestations of psychological phenomena that Joy's (Amy Poehler) expository narration at the beginning of the film, usually considered sloppy storytelling, is actually quite handy. And then there's that emotional element. Inside Out jerks plenty of tears out of our eyes as it bluntly depicts the bittersweetness of growing up and out of childhood. If parents of young kids find this central theme depressing, it's their problem, not the film's.
Oh, one last thing – the character design for Sadness (voiced by Phyllis Smith) is absolutely adorable.