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Pixar will never make a movie better than 'Inside Out'
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As you probably know, Pixar has joined the growing list of movie studios releasing their movies on streaming early, and you can now watch “Onward” on Disney+ (or rent it for $4.99 on Amazon). “Onward” is typically high-quality Pixar fare, this time about a pair of brothers who go on a quest with the ghost of their deceased father, who manifests in corporeal form as a pair of pants.
As a fan of computer animation and a sucker for anything with father issues at the core (did I cry at “Guardians of the Galaxy Volume 2”? I plead the fifth, but also yes, I did), I enjoyed it. It’s funny, heartwarming, has a good message, and I spent the whole time thinking to myself “wow, this is almost as good as ‘Inside Out.’”
But of course it can’t be as good (or, pfff, better) than “Inside Out” because "Inside Out" is not only the best Pixar movie, it’s the best possible computer-animated movie. It won't ever be topped. It tells the perfect type of story for the form, pushes the visual potential and digital animation to its limits, and ends with the best possible message that a Pixar movie could have.
Warning: I’m going to spoil “Inside Out” here, as well as a bunch of other Pixar movies, so don’t get mad at me if that happens.
“Inside Out” is the story of Riley, an 11 year old girl, and the five primary emotions that occupy her head: Joy, Sadness, Anger, Disgust, and Fear. While we watch Riley go about her day and life, we also see her emotions inside her head, governing her reactions to the world and, ultimately, her personality. Over the course of the film, Riley moves to San Francisco (an unfamiliar, uncomfortable environment, where everything from the schools to the pizza is wrong) and feels overwhelming loss and sadness. She tries to suppress the emotions so as not to upset her family, and when that doesn’t work she tries to run away from home. She only achieves peace when she learns to embrace, and truly feel, the feeling she’d been trying to run away from.
That’s key to where “Inside Out” differs from other Pixar movies: It’s the only one to tell a completely realistic story, set in the real universe. “Toy Story” takes place in a world where toys can feel and talk, “Monsters Inc.” is about a huge corporation that ultimately does some good and “Up” fantasizes about residential homes that are subject to some very specific and baffling regulations regarding their structural integrity. Only “Inside Out” has an entirely realistic, grounded plot: a little girl becomes very upset, almost makes a bad mistake, and then changes her mind at the last second.
"Hold on," you might be saying, "there are magical creatures living in her brain! That's fantasy, isn't it?" Well, I'm making a really fine distinction here, but I think it's an important one: What you might call the “fantasy” element of the story -- the concept that emotions who have their own personalities and even talk with each other -- aren’t technically a fantasy. Rather, they’re a metaphor for something that is literally happening inside Riley’s head, and these two worlds never actually meet. Joy never leaves Riley’s skull to interact with the literal world, and there’s never any “Inside Out” magic that saves the day. A comparison to illustrate the distinction: a key plot point in “Coco” is resolved because the protagonist can literally speak to the ghost of his dead ancestors, and learns things he could never have learned otherwise. The main conflict of “Inside Out,” on the other hand, is resolved because Riley learns to understand a broader spectrum of her own emotions. And she does it all on her own, with nothing more magical than the "stop" cord on a bus.
To put it another way, “Inside Out” tells an extremely mundane story, and uses a metaphor to make the abstract and difficult concepts at its core palatable to young children (and, to be perfectly honest, adults like me who just might not be terribly smart or mature). This is important because kids, and I say this with all the love I can muster, are really dumb. If you want them to take some advice, you can't always wrap it up in a theme they have to interpret. Sometimes you just have to show them, as literally as possible, that something is true... but before I get into that, let's talk about the visuals of "Inside Out," because they're off the freaking chain.
The juxtaposition of these two worlds (the real one of San Francisco, and the metaphorical one where emotions have their own consciousness) is also where “Inside Out” can really shine visually. The sandbox that the visual artists are playing in literally has no rules: they can create a thousand clones of Riley’s imaginary boyfriend, a vast underground purgatory to represent forgetting, and (in what gets my vote for the most impressive thing they’ve ever done) they explore the portion of Riley’s brain devoted to abstract thought.
And I’m not even going to attempt to explain the opening sequence, a visual representation of Riley’s consciousness coming into being, aside from pointing out that Pixar takes the stance that life happens at birth, not conception. I’m sure there were some think-pieces about that in the parts of the internet I avoid.
Finally, and probably most importantly, you’re not going to find a kids’ movie (or any movie, for that matter) with a message that is simultaneously as profound and practical as “Inside Out”’s point that it’s not just okay, but necessary, to feel sadness. That’s not just a heartwarming message or evocative theme, that’s good, practical advice for everyone. Most of us will probably find that advice useful ever day, in every situation from losing an important file at work to dealing with real family tragedies. It's that most precious gem set at the core of all great stories: a real truth that we either never learned, or simply forgot.
And by the way: it's streaming on Disney+ right now.
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Joshua Sargent is an editor for Hearst Newspapers. Email him at email@example.com.
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