Pixar’s emotional new fantasy has all the feels
Inside Out (2015)
Directed by Pete Docter
Cast: Amy Poehler, Phyllis Smith, Bill Hader, Mindy Kaling
Like a craps player on the hottest streak Vegas has ever seen, Pixar has cranked out the latest in its unbroken string of box office smashes. Anyone expecting the animation studio to be resting on its laurels nearly 30 years (and 15 films) into its existence hasn’t been paying very close attention. Sticklers for originality, art and emotional honesty, Pixar has given us some of the most beloved family films of the last three decades. Now comes Inside Out, a glowing lightbulb of a great idea that is easily the studio’s finest hour since 2008’s WALL-E.
Inside Out—written and directed primarily by Pete Docter of Monsters, Inc. and Up fame—takes place largely inside the mind of 11-year-old Riley (Kaitlyn Dias), a hockey-loving kid from the upper midwest whose parents have packed her off to live in the strange new land of San Francisco. Confused, out of place and on the verge of puberty, young Riley is going through some major life changes. Nowhere is this reflected more than in the high-tech control room of feelings located inside her skull. Steering this brainy starship Enterprise is ebullient, blue-haired pixie Joy (voiced with great enthusiasm by Amy Poehler). Joy has a pretty easy job creating happy memories for Riley. Her only hurdle is the coterie of coworkers with which she’s saddled. This collection of negative Nellies includes Fear (Bill Hader), Anger (Lewis Black), Disgust (Mindy Kaling) and Sadness (Phyllis Smith—who, like Kaling, hails from “The Office”).
The first half of the film plays out like an inventive workplace comedy with poor Joy having to overcome her party-pooping coworkers. Generally speaking, that’s not too tough a task. Joy tends to take over, gently manipulating her fellow emotions and pushing the buttons that tweak Riley’s day-to-day mood. But the anthropomorphized feelings aren’t really in control. The increasingly out-of-sorts Riley isn’t making it easy for Joy to maintain order any more. Sadness is starting to assert herself, poking away at memories that should be happy ones but are suddenly transforming into sad ones. Joy has her hands full these days trying to keep Sadness from rearing her mopey head. Riley, meanwhile, tangles with her well-meaning, but clearly flummoxed parents (Diane Lane and Kyle MacLachlan). These two story lines come to a head (so to speak) when an emotion-fueled accident kicks Joy and Sadness out of the control center and into the far recesses of Riley’s brain. It’s in this second half that Inside Out really shines.
What could have been mistaken (by a handful of TV-watching nerds) as a variation on the short-lived FOX sitcom “Herman’s Head” becomes a wild, all-out, Willy Wonka-esque fantasy. Riley’s brain is conceptualized as a giant library-cum-factory. Memories, color-coded according to emotion, are stored away like glass marbles. Squads of cartoonish workers staff the brain’s various areas such as “Imaginationland” or “Dreamland Studios” or “The Train of Thought.” Joy and Sadness make their way across this candy-colored maze trying to stay one step ahead of the crumbling sections of Riley’s brain, as portions of her once-happy childhood fade out of existence. What amounts to a very small story (a young girl is unhappy about her family’s move to an unfamiliar city) is given the epic treatment thanks to one tween’s rich, turbulent, unfailingly relatable inner life.
The main characters are wonders of conception and voice acting. The cast is perfect. (I mean, Lewis Black as Anger—how could you not?) The design is incredibly clever as well, with the emotions looking like fuzzy, computer-animated Muppets. The standout though is a cotton candy elephant named Bing Bong, a long-lost imaginary friend still bumming around the fringes of Riley’s brain, who crosses paths with Joy and Sadness. The script makes him a repository for great humor and deep emotion, perfectly summing up the film’s intentions.
For all the clever laughs to be had (and there are plenty), it’s the film’s honest depiction of emotion that really hits home. By pairing the two most at-odds emotions—Joy and Sadness—Inside Out has a lot to say about how the brains of kids work. It’s hard sometimes to fully comprehend all the things that are happening in the adult world. Our gal Riley is just old enough to know that things are changing—maybe for the better, but maybe for the worse. At the same time, she’s not quite old enough to affect the world around her. She’s just a kid, stuck going where her parents go and doing what her parents tell her to do. Slowly, the film and its characters start to realize that maybe there is no such thing as negative emotions. Maybe sadness is as valid a feeling as happiness—and maybe it can be just as strong a force for change. Inside Out is a beautifully realized, wondrous detailed, psychologically astute epiphany of a film that will have audiences laughing and crying at the same time. All I can say is thank you, Pixar. You’re brilliant. Yet again.