This article contains mild Inside Out Spoilers
In recent years, there has been a media narrative about the direction of Pixar Animation Studios. The weaver of dreams that has greater audience trust than any brand in Hollywood (save for perhaps Marvel) has admittedly dipped into the sequel well a few too many times. Monster’s University was a diverting but forgettable origin story that nobody asked for, and Cars 2 was…well, a follow-up to Pixar’s least ambitious film. As a result, industry insiders and prognosticators have been sharpening their knives since 2013 (as Pixar has endured an unusual two-year gap) for Disney’s golden child.
Well, those blades can be safely thrown away, because Inside Out is opening in theaters today and it’s another Pixar masterpiece. I’d hesitate to say where the new movie fully stands in the studio’s already staggering pantheon, which includes instant classics like WALL-E, Up, Finding Nemo, and the Toy Story Trilogy, but Inside Out has most certainly earned its place at that table. Make no mistake, Inside Out takes its childlike daydream about feelings and emotions, and makes something decidedly profound and mature. It’s fun for the whole family, but like the prologue to Up, this movie is acutely aiming for the parents this time.
As a film set squarely inside the mind of an 11-year-old girl named Riley, the far out-there concept might at first glance seem to be like a very simplistic way of explaining emotions to children, and that’s the deceptive beauty of the movie. There is plenty to immediately overwhelm the senses with literal Joy (as embodied by the starring emotion of the film and an effervescent Amy Poehler), but Riley’s mind has an intricately designed logic to it that tackles some genuinely grand and (eventually) Gordian thoughts.
To be sure, the film continues in Pixar’s animated tradition of lovable characters that audiences and children can cling onto. Riley (Kaitlyn Dias) herself is a genuinely pleasant presence that threads the difficult needle of being both broadly “normal” enough to appeal with a relatability for all audiences, yet still surprisingly complex since we see everything that makes her mind tick. Among those things are the central emotions played by familiar comedic voices like the aforementioned Joy, Sadness (Phyllis Smith), Fear (Bill Hader), Anger (Lewis Black), and Disgust (Mindy Kaling). Director Pete Docter and the Pixar animators also color-code them all with enough visual and performance distinctiveness to practically beg children to imprint on favorites (is it strange I lean towards Anger’s red-faced tirades, which feel like PG variations on Black’s Daily Show appearances?).
Quickly, a familiar animated film trope of an adventure is created when the odd couple of Joy and Sadness get lost in the neurological maze of Riley’s memories. Attempting to escape this candy-colored woods with the help of their own proverbially cowardly lion, Riley’s nigh forgotten imaginary friend, Bing Bong (Richard Kind), Inside Out offers a journey of self-acceptance between two acquaintances that become good friends.
This is the bulk of the film’s main narrative since Joy needs to get back to Riley’s “upstairs” control center for emotions (think the Enterprise bridge if designed by Steve Jobs). And that quest fires on all cylinders with jokes aimed at every demographic, including parents who’ll smile when the characters end up in Riley’s Imaginationland: there a subsection of talking clouds that keep getting run over by the main characters. “Forget it,” one cloud says to the other, “It’s Cloud Town, Jake.”
But the real vulnerability and brilliance of this film is how it truthfully informs the action in the “real world.” The loss of Joy and the ability to cope with a compartmentalized Sadness happen simultaneously for Riley because her family has moved from a quixotic childhood upbringing in Minnesota to the startling realities of urban life in San Francisco. This is amusingly contextualized by jokes for all ages with Riley growing disgusted that the only pizza they serve in her neighborhood has broccoli on it (sending both Kaling and Black on a rampage). However, it is as the film approaches its third act that its full psychological portrait is drawn. This isn’t just about a girl’s emotions; it’s about creating an animated mosaic of feelings that comprise the oft-ignored symptoms for depression.
Working as a “ticking clock” narrative for the film’s main characters since “Personality Islands” are collapsing into Riley’s apathy, what they’re actually doing is subtly informing the drably gray “B-story” of Riley as she displays symptoms of slipping into a quiet despair. Her parents under major stress from moving and work, ignore many of the telltale signs, and the longer Riley stays remote from her buried emotions of happiness or even sadness, the more she slinks toward melancholy and distance with all other characters, including herself.
It is a stunningly ambitious concept this animated film is extrapolating without ever losing sight of its universal appeal or even its jovial underpinnings. Yet, Docter is most intentionally dealing with these sophisticated ideas in a picture that imagines anthropomorphic qualities for sensations everyone experiences. Working on a vastly separate level from the rest of the adventure, the film is knowingly approaching adults, and it does so while intentionally offering the comforting notion that even if you’re alone, you are not isolated—and never should be when it comes to your feelings.
Undoubtedly, there will be a few parents who might react negatively to such a surprisingly thoughtful film, but it’s mostly buried under an animated Joy that is so strong that it might actually be teaching a better lesson about Sadness—it can color our thoughts or feelings, but we should never hide from them lest we too get lost.
The only time I can think of Pixar walking such a precarious wire was again the prologue of Up, which implicitly turned that journey for viewers of a certain age into being one of grief, loss, acceptance, and even comprehension of one’s own mortality. There is also a cute little Cub Scout in it, a talking dog, and a house carried by pastel balloons. Still, it’s layered enough to work on wholly different levels for different age groups.
Similarly, Inside Out—which is written and directed by Up’s co-director Docter—plays as a vibrant and jubilant adventure with colorful sprites running around our minds, but it also is able to offer a visceral context to emotional states that are infinitely difficult to describe or fully comprehend. This can manifest in humorous ways, such as when Pixar’s abstract personification of emotions provides a case study in a family squabble (as seen in the below clip), but it also can take on severe connotations that are truly heavy.
Ultimately, Inside Out is a computer-generated wonderment from Pixar that doesn’t just find a place in your heart, but it also really does get into your head. And after this movie, it is more than welcome to let run around in there.
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