When Inside Out was first announced in 2011, the prospect of Pixar making a movie specifically about human emotions seemed about as challenging as the home run king taking a stab at tee-ball. Even before the bookending emotional powerhouses of Up and Toy Story 3, Pixar’s reputation for earning its sentimentality was as sterling as the rest of its track record. Fast-forward through a few creative lean years, and in 2015 it seems possible, however unlikely, that the once-infallible studio could turn a touchy-feely premise into a film that leans more heavily on manipulation than inspiration. Parent company Disney probably wouldn’t have minded another lucrative sequel out of the studio, but what Pixar’s good name needed was another triumph. Inside Out, you’ll be happy to know, is such a triumph.
The movie takes us inside the home and head of Riley Anderson (Kaitlyn Dias), an 11-year-old girl from Minnesota whose family has just pulled up stakes for San Francisco. As anyone who moved around as a child can tell you, traveling is the easiest part of the journey. While Riley copes with the transition, it’s the personified emotions operating her brain that become the real stars of Inside Out. The spritely Joy (Amy Poehler) has been with Riley for as long as Riley has been. Joy glows with optimism and energy, and as voiced by Poehler, has a sunny disposition powerful enough to leave you with a tan line. Combined, they’re the perfect tour guide through the whimsical and elaborately envisioned portrayal of the human mind that director Pete Docter (and co-director Ronnie del Carmen) has concocted for us.
With a right hemisphere pressed in a Wonka factory and a left hemisphere driven by Seussian common sense, Docter’s own brain delights in making surreal order out of chaos. Inside Out is certainly Pixar’s most emotionally dense film to date, but it’s also the studio’s most technically constructed. When Joy is calling the shots in the aptly named Headquarters, Riley’s mind is a smoothly operating whirligig of pneumatic tubes storing orb-shaped memories, and ideas being brought up on literal trains of thought. Where another script might use such wordplay for just a joke, Docter (along with co-writers Meg LeFauve and Josh Cooley) will wring a laugh from a pun, and then put it to work as part of Inside Out’s colourful contraption. The emotions themselves have a fibrous texture to them that resembles felt. Felt.
It’s the competing emotions in Riley that give the inexhaustible Joy a headache. Fear (Bill Hader) demands caution as any good survival instinct should; Disgust (Mindy Kaling) keeps Riley discerning; Anger (Lewis Black) is always looking for a reason to blow his stack, and reads every situation in bolded headlines. It’s Sadness (Phyllis Smith) who Joy can’t find room for, despite the blue and besweatered downer having existed in Riley nearly as long as Joy has. When these opposing feelings become stranded in the far reaches of Riley’s psyche, Joy and Sadness have to navigate the greater landscape of their host’s personality in order to get back to Headquarters.
Once Inside Out cashes in its ticket to Docter’s theme park of imagination, it never stops amazing you. Riley’s dreams are produced in the cranial version of a TV studio; a trip through the blank spaces of abstract thought pays tribute to Duck Amuck, one of the greatest cartoons ever made; there’s even a pink, hobo elephant voiced by Richard Kind named Bing Bong. He’ll break your heart.
There are those poor souls who will take Inside Out’s game attitude toward developing its internal (ba-dum tsh!) logic as a challenge to find those ways in which it doesn’t hold up. The excited pace of Joy’s adventure leaves little room for such second-guessing, though the breathlessness of the interior action can occasionally clash with Riley’s more sedate exterior. But rare are the instances where it seems like something has been thrown in here for the sake of spectacle or an easy gag. As Joy travels further into the recesses of Riley’s brain, their two stories push forward as one through plot and metaphor. Eventually, you’re not really sure who is in control of whom.
More so than even Toy Story and Finding Nemo, Inside Out adopts a child’s view of the world in order to celebrate those who watch over them. In the way that only the very best of Pixar can, Inside Out never has to spell out the moral of its story. Rather, it illustrates painful, human experiences with a simplicity that children will understand, and with grace that adults will wince at from understanding too well. Like one of Riley’s radiant, golden memories that Joy wants to preserve, watching Inside Out is sometimes a challenge akin to staring directly at the sun: the illumination is so brilliant and blinding that tears become your only defense.
Oh, but that makes it all sound so sad, when Inside Out is that and so much more. It is sad, and it is funny, and it is scary, and it is joyful. It is all those other things you’re going to feel when watching it – the phrase “emotional rollercoaster” was invented for this movie. That indefinable “magic” that, nonetheless, defined Pixar for more than a decade is back, no longer overshadowed by your memory of other films, but as part of a whole new story you’ll treasure. What goes into that magic is no more obvious than the contents of another person’s head, but Inside Out will take you one step closer to understanding both.
Delightful, inventive and deeply affecting, Inside Out embodies the very best of what Pixar has to offer.