“It’s not much of a stretch to imagine a future in which this title is mentioned in the same breath as WALL-E or the Toy Story trilogy.”
by Ken Bakely
Pixar is a household name, and for good reason. They make some of the best animated films you can find, and Inside Out is no exception to this rule. It’s one of their strongest efforts to date. Director and co-screenwriter Pete Docter helms an evaluation of emotions both accessible to a young audience and thought provoking to an older one. Beyond the flashy colors and slapstick humor, there’s a deeply emotional and even conventionally transgressive explanation of the development of feelings and the realizations one has when they realize that life is more than memories of gleeful bliss, and that sadness is not wrong or something to be eliminated. It is a message that is presented with earnestness, yet framed around a film with great energy and wit, blending these worlds in such a wonderful way that it’s not much of a stretch to imagine a future in which this title is mentioned in the same breath as WALL-E or the Toy Story trilogy.
Most of Inside Out takes place within the mind of Riley (voice of Kaitlyn Dias), an eleven-year-old girl in Minnesota. Every memory she experiences and every decision she makes is processed through five humanoid beings in her head representing major emotions – Joy (voice of Amy Poehler), Sadness (voice of Phyllis Smith), Fear (voice of Bill Hader), Disgust (voice of Mindy Kaling), and Anger (voice of Lewis Black – because who else could portray anger incarnate?). Joy is the de facto leader, and this is represented through Riley’s constantly cheerful demeanor. However, Riley’s life is thrown for a loop when her parents (voices of Kyle MacLachlan and Diane Lane) announce that the family will move to San Francisco. In an effort to make Riley as happy as possible, Joy consciously tries to suppress Sadness from controlling any part of the experience. But this plan backfires when the two end up stranded outside “headquarters” (the brain), and have to trek through an endless memory bank. It’s a race against time as Riley can only experience fear, disgust, and anger in the interim, and with two major feelings missing, old memories and connections begin to dissolve as she struggles to adjust to life in a new city.
Docter infuses Inside Out with an electric energy, splashed with vivid colors within Riley’s mind, juxtaposed against the dreary grayness of San Francisco. The screenplay is endlessly creative – dream creation is depicted as a film studio from the contract era, soundstages hastily put together as regular players bounce about. Richard Kind voices Riley’s imaginary friend, going through a late-stage existential crisis now that his usefulness has expired. The character is critical to the second and third acts and is a genuinely splendid creation. With an all-star voice cast, the snappy dialogue comes to life, making the film an exceptionally entertaining experience. A score by veteran Michael Giacchino may not provide any memorable themes or motifs, but goes miles in underscoring the scene-to-scene rhythm. Giacchino never stumbles , and excellently complements everything from a jubilant hockey game to a wrenching sequence in which Lewis Black’s Anger convinces Riley to contemplate running away from her new home and catching a bus back to Minnesota.
Diving under the (wondrous) frenzy of sound and light reveals an important and complex message contained within Inside Out’s 94 minute runtime. It is in the great Pixar tradition of exploring mature concepts of personal development. The script is critical of the idea that any problem in a one’s life can be solved through superficial happiness, or the idea that joy is the only natural emotion. This may seem like an obvious thing to reject, but Docter perceptibly creates a cross-generational method of delivering this truth – acknowledging to younger viewers that one cannot and maintain healthy relationships without freely allowing one’s conscience to exist, and reminding older viewers that kids won’t remain kids forever. The latter message is addressed in a remarkably poignant finale.
I find it interesting how an intelligently made family film can address ideas in ways that dramas made specifically for adults cannot. Between Inside Out and Paul King’s Paddington, I have observed this quite a bit recently, as the filmmakers directly and honestly discuss ideas in refreshing ways. Why is this so? My guess is that when a sizable percentage of your viewership is likely to be at or under the age of ten or eleven, one is less likely to resort to artificial hang-ups or pretenses, and more likely speak from the heart in more universal ways. These are movies that work on many levels, and that layering leads to a result which is more rewarding thanks to the addition of further integrity and authenticity. Who would have guessed that CGI characters could potentially be such potent therapeutic aides?