Inside Out feels like a return to form for Pixar. After a run of movies that, whatever their merits, seemed to lack the Pixar Touch, we have Inside Out. Which, like all the great Pixar movies of the 2000s, gives us the full gamut of our emotions while weaving a story that imparts valuable lessons. In this case, it is a parable on the importance each of our emotions, even our “negative” ones, play in making us well-rounded, emotionally healthy human beings.
Inside Out is about an 11-year old girl named Riley and the 5 emotions that live inside her head (along with everyone else’s): Joy, Sadness, Fear, Anger, and Disgust. Their job is to take care of you. They operate a little control panel inside the “Headquarters” room governing your reactions to the world around you, fear keeping you out of danger, disgust keeping you from being poisoned (“physically and socially”), Joy keeping you happy, etcetera.
So far, Riley’s life has been pretty happy, largely due to Joy’s work as the leader of the 5 emotions. She has a good relationship with her family and friends, she’s honest, and, due to living in Minnesota, is an avid hockey fan, even playing on the local kids’ hockey team. For the most part, the other emotions are kept in check, with Anger, Disgust, and Fear never taking too much control. Only Sadness (The Office’s Phyllis Smith) is kept away, largely because Joy (Parks and Recreation's Amy Poehler) does not want her dour attitude dampening how happy things are for Riley.
However, as anyone who knows story-telling can predict, the pleasant life is disrupted when Riley and her family move to San Francisco, leaving behind her friends and her life in Minnesota for a world of dead rats and broccoli-pizzas. Joy tries to keep things happy but in an empty house with a very-late moving van and a dad who is busy with work, it becomes increasingly difficult.
Soon, a fight of-sorts between Sadness and Joy that causes them to be sucked out of the headquarters and sent into the maze of Long Term Memory. Thus Joy and Sadness are forced on a journey to headquarters taking them all over Riley’s mind while Fear, Disgust, and Anger must take the helm
Why it’s Great
Now, you may or may not have noticed this, but in that description of the plot nowhere did I mention a villain. That is because there is not one. Instead, it is natural obstacles, the choices the 5 emotions and RIley make in response to those obstacles, and the consequences of those choices that drive the plot. Bad decisions create obstacles while good decisions remove or overcome them. The closest the movie comes to a villain would be a clown when she was little, but even he only appears for a few minutes.
This means the tension is not a simple “Will they escape Villain X” but “Will they learn the lessons they need to learn in time to make the right choices?” They are the makers of their own misfortune. If they want to make it back, they have to grow.
Further, the decisions of the 5 characters, and thus Riley, make sense because of the way the 5 emotions are drawn. The emotions each of the five represents are reflected in their personalities. Joy is a happy, eager, go-getter who is always ready to find the good in things, Anger is a hot head who wants to rush in and put his foot down in reaction to any slight, and Fear sees danger everywhere.
Thus, each of the characters act in ways that are natural and their choices, whether comical or serious, make sense even when they cause problems. For example, Joy’s insistence on keeping Riley happy all the time and her unwillingness to let Sadness take the helm even when she is needed makes sense in light of Joy’s personality but it makes it harder for Riley to adapt to the difficult circumstances caused by the move.
And all of this occurs against the backdrop of a beautifully imagined world, reminiscent of a video game The Sims, but without the sanctimonious “satire” —and smarter. You have Personality Islands branching off from the headquarters, you have memory balls formed from your life experiences, both big and small, with “Core Memories” being the big ones, and a variety of theme park-like lands such as “Imagination Land’ and “Dream Pictures”, a studio where her dreams are “filmed” and “broadcast” live to headquarters.
The 5 main character, as I mentioned above, are well drawn and, I should add, fantastically voiced. I already mentioned Poehler and Smith, who are both great, with Poehler giving a delightful cheer to her role and Smith providing a modern-day, blue Eeyor-like character, but special mention should go to the other 3 as well, Bill Hader as Fear, Mindy Kaling as Disgust, and Lewis Black as Anger.
Hader’s Fear is fun and Mindy Kaling is great as a Disgust who is modeled after that somewhat snooty high school queen who always knows the best fashion. But my favorite was Lewis Black. Yes, you read that right, Lewis Black is in this one, and he is excellent. In fact, the animation captured his mannerisms so well you’ll wonder if it was rotoscoped.
The only flaw I can think of is that Riley is not the most interesting character, as she seemed to be drawn to be a very, very normal, average girl to the point of, ironically, lacking a real and identifiable personality. But the same sort of goes with the rest of the human characters. It is a bit like the Toy Story Trilogy, where Andy and his mom were beyond bland but it didn't matter because the focus was on the toys. Though Riley and her parents play a much larger part in Inside Out the story than Andy and his mom, the focus is still on the small main characters who we are following, so the film works.And, given what works works brilliantly, this is a minor quibble.
This is a fantastic movie and a must-see. It reminds us of how far Pixar, and film in general, including animation, can take us into the depths of the human heart and mind. It touches on fascinating ideas about how our emotions are needed to make us whole, ideas that afterwards can result in some meaningful contemplation by oneself or discussion with others, particularly children. And it does this while telling a fun and touching story about 5 memorable characters.
It’s a Pixar Classic.