The DONALD Rankings Top 20: #18 Inside Out

The DONALD Rankings are scores for Disney animated films that combine personal opinion with a pseudo-scientific veneer of hard data. For a full introduction to the DONALD system, please go here. Contribute your scores in the comments!

The next film on our Top 20 list is Inside Out from Pixar, which won the 2015 Academy Award for Best Animated Feature. Based on a story by director Pete Docter (Up) and co-director Ronnie del Carmen (a key story guy at Pixar since 2000), Inside Out follows the life of 11-year-old Riley Andersen through the lens of five personified emotions that control her interaction: Joy, Sadness, Anger, Disgust, and Fear.

I suspect the insides of most 11-year-old's heads is much weirder than this.
I suspect the inside of a typical 11-year-old’s head is actually much weirder than this.

Inside Out is anchored by an extraordinary and complex story, with deeper concepts not often found in a family film. It was also the first Pixar film created without input from studio co-founder Steve Jobs, who passed away in 2011. Pixar moved forward with admirable poise, especially when contrasted to the precipitous dip in quality at Walt Disney Animation Studios that followed the passing of their visionary founder in 1966.

Inside Out received universal critical acclaim, and was screened at all of the swankiest gatherings of film buffs, including the 2015 Cannes Film Festival. It was praised as the strongest Pixar film in recent years, and reviewers used expressions like “transcendent,” “buoyant,” and “therapeutic” in their breathless descriptions.

But how does it stack up against the greatest Disney animated films of all time? Pretty well, actually…

DONALD Score Sheet: Inside Out (2015)

1. Story: 10
The concept of Inside Out is one of the strongest in the history of Disney and/or Pixar animated films, and the execution is basically flawless. Most family-oriented movies are very light on subtext, presumably because the little people watching them have no frame of reference for it. But the story arc of Inside Out is all about what happens inside your head. External events help move the action, and all of the story tension comes from the internal workings of Riley’s mind. The heroes of the story still win, of course, but the stakes feel catastrophic for Riley if they don’t.

Riley before she learned about taxes, home repair, and presidential elections.
Riley before she learned about taxes, home repair, and presidential elections.

2. Music: 7
Inside Out was scored by the great Michael Giacchino, and it was his fifth Pixar film to that point. It is difficult to rate it much higher without any breakout songs in the classic Disney tradition, but the music is thoughtful and evocative. Which is, you know, ideal for a movie that takes place inside a brain and features personified emotions.

It's a great album, but the cover art is pretty spotty.
It’s a great album, but the cover art is pretty spotty.

3. Animation Quality: 8
The visual element of Inside Out is charming, entertaining, and crucial to understanding the concepts told by the story. Although the movie was driven more by the amazing story than the quality of animation, the latter was still well-designed and technically solid. The overall art design of Inside Out was meant to emulate classic Broadway musicals, although I only picked up on that in a few scenes.

Just some kids learning about the emotions NOT featured in "Inside Out."
Just some kids learning about the emotions NOT featured in “Inside Out.”

4. Memorable Protagonist: 8
As the unquestioned leader of Riley’s mind, Joy drives Inside Out with infectious, uh, joy. Although the film becomes a buddy comedy with Joy and Sadness, it is Joy who undergoes the hero’s transformation. The scenes where she discovers it is okay to be sad sometimes were among the most powerful in the film.

Joy's uncontrollable happiness can make her vacation selfies a little unseemly.
Joy’s uncontrollable happiness can make her vacation selfies a little unseemly.

5. Memorable Antagonist(s): 4
This is a tough score, because the story of Inside Out provides gobs of anxiety about the welfare of the major characters. But, there is not a classic “Disney Villain” as such; the antagonist would be… atrophy? Clumsiness? Excessive happiness? The tension is good, but is also provided by a series of challenges, which is tough to put in a costume and present on the “Villains” float in Disney World.

The inevitable sequel will have more bad guys.
Parents who took their little kids to this movie were either confused or disappointed.

6. Script: 9
Inside Out takes full advantage of their opportunities for humor: plenty of puns and bodily functions for the kids, and lots of clever wordplay for the adults. The script also reaches into both the heartwarming bag and the meaningful bag, thereby completing the power trio of Disney animated films. The meaningful lines, in particular, strike home well, even if they are not as plentiful as the funny lines.

Dinner at the Andersens is cashew chicken with a side of crackling tension.
Dinner at the Andersens is cashew chicken with a side of crackling tension.

7. Supporting Characters: 8
Supporting characters are always a strength of Pixar films, and Inside Out is no different. The interplay between the emotions — especially in the heads of other characters — is the most entertaining aspect of the movie. Sadness is almost a second protagonist, Disgust is underused, Fear is overused, and Anger is right on the nose. Inside Out’s supporting characters are not quite as strong as something like the Toy Story crew, but when those are the comps, the movie is just fine.

I wonder which one of these knuckleheads is running things when I'm in a three hour work meeting?
I wonder which one of these knuckleheads is running things when I’m in a three hour work meeting?

8. Timelessness: 7
The concept behind Inside Out is strong, and the film’s rave reviews will keep it front-of-mind for a while. In Disney’s theme parks and merchandising machines, though, the opportunities are already dwindling. Subsequent strong films have began shuffling the Inside Out orbs toward long-term memory, and this score could be a point or two lower if ranked in five years.

9. Voice Acting: 8
It could be easy to overlook the voice acting in a movie full of other quality elements, but Inside Out is also strong here. Amy Poehler was an inspired choice to play Joy, and she was recognized with a handful of awards for her performance. Phyllis Smith as Sadness was every bit as good, and brought home some silverware for her work, as well.

"And ever since then, Riley has been afraid of novelty toothbrushes." Image by Disney•Pixar
“And ever since then, Riley has been afraid of giant foam fingers.” Image by Disney•Pixar

10. Charm/Intangibles: 8
I have been moved to tears by a dog food commercial before, so me saying that I got a little weepy at parts of Inside Out is not much of an admission. However, there were some bittersweet and touching moments (everything with Bing Bong, for example) that just tore me up. I enjoyed this movie, and found it clever and well-written. It is not my favorite Pixar film, but is still great.

DONALD Score: 77

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