After over a decade of seemingly unimpeachable success, the genius factory at Pixar has felt stuck in a rut over the past few years. A stream of corporate mandated sequels and a muddled attempt at a Disney princess fable showed signs of creative strain. Thankfully, ‘Inside Out’ rights those wrongs by serving up another technically astounding, emotionally rich and absolutely hilarious movie. It doesn’t just feel like a return to form for Pixar. It may even be the studio’s finest achievement.
The simple premise comes straight out of the 1990s Fox sitcom factory (specifically ‘Herman’s Head’), but with infinitely superior results. The film takes place primarily within the mind of an 11-year-old girl named Riley (Kaitlyn Dias), which is controlled by five competing emotions: Joy (Amy Poehler), Anger (Lewis Black), Disgust (Mindy Kaling), Fear (Bill Hader) and Sadness (Phyllis Smith). They run Riley’s mind like a control center. Every day is filled up with memories touched by each emotion, while the endlessly perky Joy tries to keep everyone in line and her memories at the forefront.
Riley’s personality is also defined by a collection of core memories, all of which have been carefully curated by Joy. However, when Riley’s family moves to San Francisco, a great unbalance forms in her head and Sadness takes over a core memory. Desperate to pull that sad memory out of the system, Joy and Sadness are accidentally sucked up a brain tube and shot into the world of Riley’s subconscious and imagination, where they must work together to find a way home. With Fear, Anger and Disgust in charge of Riley’s behavior from then on, the girl spirals out of control. Joy and Sadness have to fight their way back as the girl’s personality crumbles, aided by a lovingly ludicrous childhood imaginary friend known as Bing Bong (the great Richard Kind).
The concept is pure Pixar, both playfully simple and emotionally complex. The design is peppy and cute with some truly gorgeous animation. The characters of the emotions are color-coded and instantly recognizable, with the voice actors cast perfectly to type for maximum comedic potential. Poehler is ideal as Joy, a character so relentlessly optimistic that she could easily become nauseating were it not for the fact that she’s played by a skilled comedienne with just the right combination of sincerity and irony to pull it off. Hader, Kailing and Black all play their comedic types just right and bounce off each other with the ease of a well-honed comedy troupe. Meanwhile, Smith plays her part straight and pulls significant sympathy from the audience.
The vast worlds of the subconscious and imagination are cleverly designed to serve as consistent joke factories (Riley’s imaginary perfect boyfriend is particularly hysterical) and set up some action sequences to keep the narrative train chugging. As a pure family-friendly entertainment, ‘Inside Out’ is a riot. However, what makes it a truly great movie has nothing to do with any of that.
The central metaphor of a person run by competing emotions is a poignant one and that’s certainly not lost on co-directors Pete Docter (‘Monsters, Inc.’, ‘Up’) and Ronaldo Del Carmen or their co-writers Meg LeFauve and Josh Cooley. The Pixar team has some fairly cogent and complex statements to make about human nature that are seamlessly worked into the fun. At times it’s subtle, like the order in which Riley’s emotions appear in her developmental infancy or how glimpses into her parents’ heads reveal that the mother’s mind is run by sadness and the father’s by anger. When the film’s moral reveals itself in the third act, the statement is big and surprisingly mature for what is supposedly a children’s film.
‘Inside Out’ is essentially a film about the importance of sadness to our growth and emotional stability, which is a quite a mature and relevant message to pass onto children (or their parents for that matter). As a result, the finale to the story is deeply moving, not just in how it tugs on the heartstrings through satisfying narrative structure and relatable characters, but through a humane and relevant message about life in general.
Pixar movies have often offered a surprisingly fearless approach to dealing with difficult emotional truths like loss (the ‘Toy Story’ movies), death (‘Up’), family separation (‘Finding Nemo’), or even planetary destruction (‘Wall-E’). At its best, the studio trusts young audiences to deal with difficult emotions and ideas, knowing that the end result will be infinitely more satisfying – not to mention that the themes are surrounded by exquisitely written and animated adventure stories. ‘Inside Out’ plays perfectly in that mold, even stretching a bit beyond what some of the earlier Pixar films have achieved. It’s not just a movie that will make your lip tremble after all the laughs and excitement; it also offers genuine psychological insight worth considering. That ain’t bad for a big fluffy summer movie with enough candy-colored visuals, thrilling spectacle and satisfying laughs to keep audiences smiling big silly grins all summer long.
It’s easy for cynical types who don’t consider movies adult unless they have an R rating to dismiss films like this as simplistic kiddie fodder. However, any picture that offers a viewing experience this rich and satisfying on all emotional and intellectual levels can’t be labeled anything other than art. This particular work of art just happens to be entertaining enough for adults to stomach and smart enough for kids to follow.