Up until recently, Pixar Animations, one of the giants of the animated film industry thanks in no small part to its partnership with Disney, was in a bit of a rut. Even the most devoted of fans began to notice that the studio seemed more interested in churning out lackluster sequels for its hit money-making properties like Monsters Inc. and Cars than in producing original works in the vein of the heartfelt coming-of-age stories of yore such as Toy Story and Finding Nemo. Fortunately, Inside Out, the new film from director Pete Docter which features an all-star cast of seasoned comedy actors, heralds a return to form for the animation behemoth. The film contains plenty of laughs and top-notch visual effects that both children and adults can enjoy as well as a poignant underlying message that sometimes the best way to deal with life is to embrace all of it, both the bad and the good.
Inside Out tells the story of an 11-year-old girl named Riley Anderson (voiced by Kaitlyn Dias) as she and her parents cope with an emotionally-draining move across the country. However, Riley’s perspective is just part of the film’s bigger picture. The other part centers around the five emotions that steer her through life, each of which is personified as a colored humanoid: there’s Joy ( voiced by Amy Poehler), Sadness (Phyllis Smith), Fear (Bill Hader), Disgust (Mindy Kaling), and Anger (Lewis Black). These five emotions keep watch over Riley’s mental well being from their “headquarters” in her mind and also collect her various memories (each represented by a glowing sphere matching the color of whatever emotion it is associated with) before sending them down into her long-term memory banks.
When a mishap with Riley’s “core memories” (the memories that power the various facets of her personality, represented by islands connected to the headquarters) cause Joy and Sadness to accidently be flung from the headquarters into the long-term memory bank, the two must find their way back before the central pillars of Riley’s personality crumble away forever. Along the way, Joy and Sadness venture through various parts of Riley’s mind such as her subconscious, her imagination, her abstract thoughts, and even the “Dream Productions” where Riley’s dreams are created. Meanwhile, Anger, Disgust, and Fear do their best to manage without Joy, causing Riley to become emotionally moody and distant, an interesting and rather spot-on allegory for the emotional shifts many kids Riley’s age can go through when dealing with big life changes.
While every past Pixar film has dealt with similar emotional issues (working through separation anxiety in Toy Story and Finding Nemo, overcoming the loss of a loved one in Up, dealing with a mid-life crisis in The Incredibles, etc.), Inside Out ups the ante by addressing how much an imbalance of emotions can affect the many facets of a person’s life. It also addresses the oft-discussed but important lesson that trying to ceaselessly fill your life with happiness can sometimes do more harm than good (as Poehler’s Joy gradually finds out). There is some emotionally-heavy, tear-inducing material to be sure (some of which might fly above the heads of younger viewers) but the comedic bits and the breathtaking use of visual flair help to keep the film’s narrative from stalling out.
Speaking of comedy, the entirety of Inside Out’s emotion cast clearly brought their A-game for the film. Amy Poehler channels the same high-energy pep into Joy that made her such an entertaining force of nature as Parks and Recreation’s leading lady Leslie Knope while Phyllis Smith’s hilariously sullen portrayal as Sadness harkens back to her subtle yet crucial role in The Office. Fellow Office alum Mindy Kaling has just the right amount of sarcastic wit as Disgust and Bill Hader’s off-the-walls take on Fear is guaranteed to have both kids and adults bursting with laughter. Finally, Lewis Black’s iconic angry-rant style of standup comedy makes him the perfect fit for Anger and the film’s writers gave him plenty of golden G-rated material to work with. Supporting actors such as Richard Kind, Diane Lane, Kyle McLachlan, and Rashida Jones all give solid performances as well despite being given much less dialogue to work with.
It’s hard to find any faults within Inside Out’s narrative (aside from the highbrow nature of its underlying message) but one piece of advice more grown up viewers should take into consideration is to not think too hard about the finer details of how Riley’s mind operates. If you do, you’ll most assuredly start to notice tons of reality-breaking plot-holes, things which a younger viewer would not even consider (why would Riley’s entire sense of honesty crumble away (seemingly forever) after doing one dishonest thing? How could a person function without ever feeling any joy or sadness at all? Etc.) Obviously more adult viewers won’t be able to help noticing these plot holes and stumping themselves with the questions that inevitably follow but if you go into the film with an open mind and do your best to turn your “skeptic” meter down, you’ll be much better off.
For a film that is so funny and visually delightful, Inside Out also grounds its fictional narrative in very real emotional hurdles that many people, not just kids, will likely have to overcome at some point in their lives (oftentimes more than once). The message the film tries to impart may be lost on younger viewers but, if anything, Inside Out is the sort of movie that can make you laugh, cry, and gasp with wonder and amazement all at once and that should be proof enough that Pixar is finally on an upswing.