Sometimes a director becomes a star when a certain movie hits a nerve or shows a unique vision. Here's a prediction: it's going to happen on June 19 with the opening of Pixar's Inside Out. For all the colors of its assaulting ad campaign, you might suppose this is just another Day-Glo kid flick, but it turns out to also be a mind-bending thinker along the lines of The Matrix, whoa!
Its director has built a film with such an original set of operating parts that it will stand apart and dazzle. Plus, he will do this in a summer that is already proving so loud and epic that a lot of studio releases are getting trampled. The latest Mad Max and Avengers movies served as nitro-boosts to open the season. Meanwhile, this director's last film had a boy scout and an old man as its central characters.
Because that film came out six years ago, many will not remember his name: Pete Docter. He was the third animator hired at Pixar, and he contributed significantly to Toy Story before directing his own: Monsters Inc., Up (starring the junior scout, age 9, and widower, age 78) and now Inside Out. These carve a special place for themselves even among the estimable films of Pixar.
This Emeryville studio pioneered computer animation and helped spread the gospel of CGI. Yet for all the promise of digital effects, Hollywood largely keeps making the same movies, just with a bigger palette. The paradigm shift to digital has been revolutionary, but scripts for movies have not been keeping pace with all those expanding possibilities of what can now be visualized with computer graphics.
Among the filmmakers who bridged that gap years ago to show its potential are Lana and Andy Wachowski, who made the notion of virtual reality so striking and visceral with The Matrix, a complex world with distinct rules that ultimately made sense once the pieces of its puzzle came together. What at first seemed weird became wondrous.
It falls into a category of puzzle films that audiences can decode and solve. This is cinema crossing into a nexus with games, where we are more engaged and intellectually challenged. Many would say that these films are trippy, sending us into a parallel universe.
The reigning king of puzzle films is Christopher Nolan, who directed Memento, Inception, and Interstellar. He is everything we would expect if someone cast him in a movie. He always wears a black suit jacket, he has a British accent, and he makes serious sci-fi movies that suffer no fools.
Admittedly, a Nolan film is reliably brilliant and is made to be rigorous. As his movies go deeper, dream-within-a-dream, a casual moviegoer's brain can go into overdrive, shifting gears to keep up. This is the conventional wisdom about puzzle films, that they will be intense.
Understanding this makes the work of Pete Docter even more impressive. His films have had the widest demographic possible, from children all the way to seniors, just like his two main characters in Up. Either one of them would get blown out of a Nolan film with their ears bleeding. And yet somehow a world built by Docter is just as intricate but more accessible.
In Monsters Inc., the factories of doors connected to kids' bedrooms are the basis for the Monstropolis economy. To understand the final chase sequence requires a keen spatial reasoning of rapid portal-travel, but is made so intuitive that even toddlers can gleefully watch and understand. Conceptually it has everything the videogame Portal would show years later.
Docter always finds a way to present abstract concepts with humor and clarity. He is a master of efficient storytelling, and the testament to this is the montage at the beginning of Up. It was such a buzz-worthy achievement that the sequence is still studied to learn how he captured the breadth of a long married life, including infertility and death, in just four minutes.
Now his latest film arrives. Inside Out logically extends to those far reaches of the imagination where his prior films were heading. It is exactly the kind of mind-game that Christopher Nolan adapts into cerebral thrillers, but in the hands of Docter it is also filled with emotional warmth, big laughs, and all-ages appeal.
It is important to convey that Docter is the nicest guy, but the reason for saying so is that it informs his collaborative style. He has a strong vision that is enhanced by having other Pixar artists and the famed 'Brain Trust' provide him feedback and suggestions. In this way, his starting inspiration gets built slowly and progressively into something ingenious.
The catalyst for this film was primary emotions, kindled by an old cartoon he had never forgotten and the work of renowned psychologist Dr. Paul Ekman. From this kernel the movie took shape over five years, culminating in a wildly inventive on-screen world. Of course, Docter has an unusual luxury. Pixar has vast resources and the studio gives him creative freedoms that are generous by Hollywood standards.
Pixar has been a proving ground of directors, making John Lasseter and Brad Bird household names, which is still generally rare for animators. Lasseter has now become the creative head of the Walt Disney studios and Bird's Tomorrowland led the box office for Memorial Day weekend, a laudable feat though dimmed by the whispers of summer road-kill.
Box office gross is a fickle judge, but it is now part of the equation in making a modern classic. So too is the excitement of something refreshingly new, and by the end of June we might be adding a third stone-carved head to that imaginary Mt. Rushmore of the Pixar studio. Or we will be sniffing at the tire burns, though I doubt that will be the outcome.
When Inside Out takes you on its mind-trip, think about how this same movie that passes for a kid's film is as boundary-pushing as Inception. Think about what a useful model it can serve in bringing more challenging fare to mainstream movies. And finally you will never forget the name Pete Docter, a true visionary and a rising force among American directors.