“Inside Out” isn't just Pixar Animation Studios' best film to date, it's one of the best films of the 21st century. That's a big bite, I know, but that's where I was left after the emotional, mature, brilliantly examining and creative experience of the movie. It is the project that most completely reflects the studio's tenets of refined storytelling and entertainment, a mission statement so often repeated as to flirt with the platitudinous. Yet “Inside Out” reminds you how real it is, how powerful cinema can be and how profoundly it can explore, reflect and express the human condition. This is why we project images in dark rooms, to achieve heights such as these.
I could tell nearly a year ago, at a special footage presentation for the film in Los Angeles, that if “Inside Out” was going to be a success, it would be because of deep personal beginnings. Director Pete Docter (“Monsters, Inc.,” “Up”) confided at the time that witnessing his daughter's inevitable emotional shift as she veered toward adolescence left him, as a parent, mourning the loss of her joyful youth. He wanted to better understand the complexities of the emotions that were changing her, and the seeds of the film were born.
By now you're aware of the basic premise: the mind of Riley Anderson serves as the setting for the film. She's a young girl piloted by a quintet of central emotions: Anger (Lewis Black), who controls the valve of rage and justice; Disgust (Mindy Kaling), managing her tolerance for the undesirable; Fear (Bill Hader), keeping her out of danger; Sadness (Phyllis Smith), who despite being demure, has a pretty strong grip on Riley's sense of the world; and Joy (Amy Poehler), delighting in the day-to-day operation of creating and managing Riley's memories and particularly making pleasant new ones.
That's really just the set-up, though, for a whole wonderland Docter and his writers have concocted. You can really sense the director's journey through this film in understanding his daughter better. You're able to witness an artist using the tools at his disposal to connect with something in his life, and that's what makes it so utterly powerful. I was a blubbering mess when the credits rolled, and not because of anything so simplistic as sadness or just generally being moved. It was how expertly and empathetically the story examined its central character. The title could not be more apt. This is an experience of revelation, in no uncertain terms – and they made it look easy!
Now, this is also the kind of film that should (keyword) benefit by a move to an expanded Best Picture field. But since the 2009 Oscars paradigm shift, outside of “Up” and “Toy Story 3” – two of Pixar's absolute finest achievements – no other animated feature has managed the feat. I imagine Disney will be hopeful as ever, though, because to be fair, nothing that couldn't easily be ghettoized in the Academy's animation-specific category has announced itself in the Oscar fray like this in a few years.
But here's what I propose. Let's finally break that barrier for directors, too. If filmmakers are honest with themselves, they'll understand that “Inside Out” is as definitive a directorial accomplishment as you're likely to see. The Pixar trust, of course – the story group and collective of hard-working artists within – might serve as the “auteur” for these works, but with films like “Monsters, Inc.” and “Up,” Docter has proved himself perhaps the most talented asset in the company. His work simply transcends in how it relates to audiences, and every new achievement has been as exceptional if not more so than the last. His credentials speak for themselves, and “Inside Out” is a showcase beyond them.
So, while the usual conversations will rightly be had around the Best Original Screenplay and Best Picture categories, let's be serious. This is what a masterpiece looks like.
“Inside Out” opens June 19.