Imagine being in that first meeting for Inside Out, a tale about what goes on inside the head of a young woman on the cusp of puberty as represented by a complex technical infrastructure and five characters based five unique emotional states. The whole thing sounds like a psychology text re-edited to be read by children, and perhaps even just as difficult to market. But having said that, this is Pixar, and they’re not your average animation studio. Still, such ambition seems like an odd choice for the studio to put its renewed creative effort behind to rebound after a three movie slump that made people ask if Pixar had lost its mojo? Naturally, by aiming so high, it seems that Pixar, through the wonderfulness of Inside Out, has got its groove back.
Aside from the original Toy Story, if you were to ask people what the best Pixar films are, they will likely be some combination of Wall-E, Up, and Toy Story 3. At least they are to me. Pixar’s one-two-three punch from 2008-2010 were powerful films that, although having their share of whimsy, were thematically, emotionally and stylistically complex. Wall-E was basically a silent movie for its first act, Up open with a montage that cover the whole life of an old married couple including a miscarriage and one of the spouse’s passing, and Toy Story 3… Well, we all remember that trip to the dump.
Inside Out is from that same school, combining the bright colors and funny characters of just about any animated movie with an existential subtext that could keep any number of grad students from the literary, sociological and psychological disciplines busy for years. It questions how we treat emotions, how emotions shade our memories, and makes some pointed commentary on how we choose the things that matter to us and how that changes over time.
The plot is simple enough, 11-year-old Riley is moving from her beloved Minnesota to a new life in San Francisco. It’s a time fraught with all kinds of new feelings, but fortunately for Riley she has Joy (voiced by Amy Poehler) who manages Riley’s inner world with an iron fist in a velvet glove. Helping Joy is Anger (Lewis Black), Fear (Bill Hader), Disgust (Mindy Kaling), and Sadness (Phyllis Smith), but when Sadness starts tainting Riley’s happy feelings, she scuffles with Joy and the pair get lost amongst the bowels of Riley’s subconscious just as Riley needs Joy the most to cope with her new circumstances.
Veteran Pixar director Peter Docter does what Pixar does best with Inside Out by making both its real and imaginary worlds in the film incredibly relatable to kids of all ages. We call recognize the emotional upheaval of moving someplace entirely new, and we can all remember, as kids, those times we got unexpected glimpses into the complicated adult world we didn’t understand the finer points of. The bizarro bureaucracy of Riley’s subconscious is sublime in its simplicity, and often hilarious in the details, like in the scene where Joy and Sadness come across a pair of workers choosing memories to discard. Which U.S. Presidents to remember? “Washington, Lincoln, and the fat one.” The other 41, sealed like all memories in a brightly colored orb, are vacuumed up and dumped down an abyss from which no memory returns.
Like much of Pixar’s best work, deep philosophical self-awareness haunts everything that happens on screen. It’s easy to read the message behind Sadness’ sudden ability to turn memories from their happy yellow to sullen blue, or the random encounter with Riley’s imaginary friend Bing Bong (delightfully voiced by Gotham mayor Richard Kind) in the long, maze-like corridors of Riley’s memory. But then we get that short cut through abstract thought, which painstakingly but artfully illustrates how one processes new information. There’s also a detour through the Hollywood-like studio where dreams are made, setting the stage for what is perhaps Inside Out’s funniest sight gag.
Another Pixar staple is the impeccable voice casting. Who better than the woman who played endless optimistic and affirmative Leslie Knopp for seven years on Parks & Rec, Poehler, to fill the animus of Joy, who looks like Tinkerbell but has the personality of the version of Hillary Clinton played by Poehler on Saturday Night Live. Even when she’s doing something mean, like drawing a chalk circle around Sadness, she dresses it up in a way designed to make you think that your talent is being used to its maximum effect. In this instance, keeping the sadness contained.
Smith, who played another under-appreciated realist for years on The Office, gifts Sadness with the most humanity of the five main characters. Unlike the others, she kind of just hangs out there in the background, but at the same time she has the most appreciation for and insight into Riley’s inner world. Poehler has the style, but Smith has the substance, they’re a good combo. Hader is wonderfully understated as Fear, Kaling gives Disgust a lot of personality, and Black owns Anger. There’s a scene early in the movie that I would swear was animated by rotoscoping one of Black’s stand-up routines or Daily Show segments.
But despite the fact that story is led by five talented comedians, the end runaround of the story packs an emotional whollop. To speak candidly, if you don’t leave this movie bawling like a baby, then I’m concerned for you. For kids there’s the message that everything’s going to be alright as you grow up because you’re not really losing anything so much as letting it change. For those kids’ parents, there’s a reminder of a time when so many little things mattered so much, and when looking at great change was the scariest, and the most confusing thing imaginable. Docter and his team steadily and subtly hold up a mirror to our own lives and the simple message is that everything’s go to be alright.
On top of it all, the artistry of Pixar’s pixels remains impeccable, and if you watch Inside Out in 3-D you can practically reach out and feel the fuzz on the characters like they were real life Muppets and not some invention in a computer. The film is grounded in realistic detail and filled with a myriad of Easter eggs and hidden references to keep eyes busy when they’re not weeping at the raw emotion. Yes, Inside Out is a special treat that reminds us why we have such a high bar of expectation set whenever we see the Pixar logo on our movie screens, and after three pitches that landed far out side the box, this one sails confidentially and definitively across the plate. Time will tell if Inside Out is one of Pixar’s best, but it definitely deserves to be a hit,