“Inside Out,” the Pixar movie that made its debut at the Cannes Film Festival Monday, is an opportunity for Walt Disney Co.’s animation studio to reassert its creative leadership and wow fans after a two-year absence from theaters.
Unlike past Pixar films, with wisecracking toys and anthropomorphic automobiles, “Inside Out” tells the story of an 11-year-old girl named Riley coming to grips with competing emotions in her head after her family moves to a new city.
“If you look at where Pixar has been less successful, it’s arguably where they didn’t take risks,” said Celia Mercer, head of animation at the School of Theater, Film & Television at the University of California, Los Angeles, and a Pixar fan since the studio’s first short film in 1986. “They were sequels, or just not as cutting edge.”
Founded by George Lucas and taken to new heights by Steve Jobs, Pixar revolutionized movie making with “Toy Story,” the first feature-length, computer-animated film in 1995. Disney paid $7.4 billion for the company in 2006, and Chief Executive Officer Bob Iger considers Pixar one of his most-important brands. Recent releases, such as 2011’s “Cars 2,” did better commercially than with critics.
Pixar has been overshadowed by a resurgent Disney Animation Studios, Walt Disney’s original business, which made the Oscar-winning “Frozen,” the top-grossing animated feature of all time. Competition heated up with “The Lego Movie” from Warner Bros. and the “Despicable Me” franchise from Universal Pictures. Pixar last won an Oscar for 2012’s “Brave.”
“Inside Out” is a return to the studio’s more innovative pictures, said David A. Price, author of “The Pixar Touch: The Making of a Company.” “It’s an original product. They’re trying to break new ground in terms of setting and characters.”
The film features comedians Amy Poehler, Bill Hader, Lewis Black and Mindy Kaling as the warring emotions of Joy, Fear, Anger and Disgust inside Riley’s head. The characters are drawn and act in ways that are consistent with the feelings they mean to depict and seek to evoke from the audience.
“Inside Out” opens in U.S. theaters on June 19 and won’t face direct competition until Universal Pictures releases “Minions” three weeks later. Disney will host a special screening at 600 theaters on June 16 that includes a question-and-answer session with Poehler and others via satellite, to create buzz before the traditional opening.
Phil Contrino, chief analyst at BoxOffice.com, said “Inside Out” could gross $280 million domestically, while Barton Crockett, an analyst at FBR Capital Markets, predicts receipts of $240 million for Disney.
“The early buzz on this movie is great,” Crockett said in an interview.
Pete Docter, who co-wrote and directed the 2001 hit “Monsters, Inc.” and won an Oscar for Pixar’s “Up” in 2010, is co-writer and director of “Inside Out.” He told theater industry representatives at the CinemaCon trade show in Las Vegas last month that he got the idea by watching his own daughter, Elizabeth.
“When she turned 11, she started rolling her eyes at us, and we began to wonder what it was like inside her to make her do that,” Docter said at a screening.
While Disney declined to make any Pixar executives available, Ed Catmull, president of the division, has written of his own concern that the studio was losing some of the free-spirited culture that produced hits like “Finding Nemo.”
“People had begun to feel that it was either not safe or not welcome to offer differing ideas,” he wrote in his book “Creativity Inc.,” published last year.
Catmull held up “Inside Out” as an example of the Emeryville, California-based company’s creative process in action, with 35 members of the Pixar “Braintrust” critiquing Docter’s earliest work on the film in candid detail.
“Everyone agreed,” Catmull wrote, that the picture “had the potential to be, like Pete’s previous film ‘Up,’ among our most original and affecting.”
Another test for Pixar will come Nov. 25 when the studio releases “The Good Dinosaur,” a film imagining what life would be like if those massive reptiles still roamed the Earth. The picture’s first director, Bob Peterson, was replaced in 2013 and its release date delayed for a year, leaving Pixar without a 2014 release. Peter Sohn, Peterson’s replacement, is directing his first feature.
Crockett, the FBR analyst, anticipates that “The Good Dinosaur” will bring in $200 million in domestic box-office receipts. That would rank it 12th among the 14 films Pixar has released to date, according to researcher Box Office Mojo.
After two original films this year, Pixar will follow up with two sequels: “Finding Dory” in 2016 with Ellen DeGeneres reprising her role from “Finding Nemo,” and “The Incredibles 2.”
“Fans have a love-hate relationship with sequels,” Price said. “They’re easy to trash as exploitative and derivative. On the other hand the biggest excitement is for ‘‘Incredibles 2’’ and ‘‘Finding Dory.’’