Ever since Toy Story hit movie theaters 20 years ago, Pixar has been a force to be reckoned with. What started out more as a cinematic achievement (the first fully computer animated feature film) slowly grew and evolved into a studio that told great stories to go along with the great computer animation. In those 20 years Pixar has hardly a blemish on its record, save for the two Cars movies, in my opinion. Even their slightly lesser films, like Brave or Monsters University are still quite good (again, save for the two Cars movies). Aside from those four, every other Pixar animated film has a rating of over 90% on Rotten Tomatoes, making them universally loved and critically acclaimed. Pixar creates great movies that work as pure entertainment for kids and also are able to entertain and move adults as well. Their latest feature, Inside Out, is no exception.
Inside Out brings the interior life of the mind of a young girl named Riley (Kaitlyn Dias) to, well, life through five characters inside her head: Joy (Amy Poehler), Sadness (Phyllis Smith), Fear (Bill Hader), Anger (Lewis Black), and Disgust (Mindy Kaling). These five emotions run the Headquarters (because they’re in her head, heh) where they help Riley process her experiences and interactions with her parents, friends, and the world around her. The memories they generate feed into her personality, creating personality islands that run on “core memories,” Riley’s best memories that have shaped her so far and are her most important characteristics. A sudden move from Minnesota to San Francisco upsets the apple cart a bit, and through an accident, Joy and Sadness find themselves jettisoned from Headquarters along with Riley’s core memories to Long-Term Memory storage, shutting down eleven year-old Riley’s personality, and leaving Fear, Anger, and Disgust to end for themselves. This leads Riley to go through a lot of emotional changes, and for her personality islands to start to crumble one by one as Joy and Sadness try to get back to Headquarters before it’s too late.
The story deftly handles the world of feelings, memories, and emotions. One of the strengths of Pixar is their ability to create a fully realized world in all of their films, and to imbue them with vibrancy and life. The entire mind is laid out wonderfully and thoughtfully, from the Train of Thought that brings memories and daydreams to the Headquarters on command, to the tunnel of abstract thought, and even the subterranean levels of the subconscious where some bad thoughts and memories are imprisoned. All of the memories generated by Riley are glowing orbs that are color-coordinated to one of the five emotions. All of the memories are sent off to long-tern memory, except for the core memories that are housed in Headquarters and provide energy to various islands of Riley’s personality: Goofball, Friendship, Hockey, Honesty, and Family. Headquarters is separated from these islands and the nearby labyrinth of Long-Term Memory by an abyss where old, obsolete memories are dumped.
The five emotions that run the show all have a purpose, but Joy is the leader of the bunch. All of Riley’s core memories are colored yellow like Joy, indicating a happy life. Only Sadness feels like she lacks a purpose, and Joy struggles with finding how to integrate Sadness and see her value. In fact, Sadness accidentally touching a happy memory and turning it into a sad one ends up being the impetus for how Joy and Sadness find themselves outside of Headquarters. Over the course of their journey through Long-Term Memory, which is aided by Riley’s old imaginary friend Bing Bong (Richard Kind), Joy comes to realize the value of Sadness. In a touching moment where Bing Bong expresses his pain of being forgotten by Riley, Sadness comforts him and allows him to get past his grief so they can move on toward their goal. It’s never stated, but it’s heavily implied that sadness is part of what allows us to feel empathy as humans. If there is one minor quibble I have it is that the idea that Anger, Fear, and Disgust come up with to fix things is really drastic for an 11 year-old who has moved halfway across the country. Having said that, though, I’m not sure if there was a slightly less extreme action they could have had her undertake instead, and at least they have the courage of their convictions to follow through with it.
At the heart of the film is the idea that all of the emotions are necessary to have a fully functioning human. Someone controlled (in this case literally) by only Fear, Anger, and Disgust is incomplete. Only when all five are working together are we able to connect with others. It’s ok to feel all kinds of emotions. And it’s as important to our health to share our sadness with others as it can be to share our joy. This movie does an outstanding job showing that it’s not just the interconnectedness of emotions, but the healthy bond of relationships through shared emotions. It’s not good to always hold back sadness or even anger. They all have a purpose. Try as we might, we can’t simply contain our sadness, something Joy tries to do literally early on.
On top of all of the weightier insights into the human condition that Inside Out mines to great effect, the film is a whole lot of fun. There is a running joke about Disgust and Anger and a particular food. There’s a very funny explanation for why random songs can get stuck in your head. The journey through abstract thought is terrifically abstract and so well done I’m not sure even I understood it all. And there are brief glimpses into the Headquarters of the Mom (Diane Lane) and the Dad (Kyle MacLachlan). A trip through Imaginationland might have gotten the biggest laugh out of me involving the rewarding of medals to everyone. And there is a theater company that produces Riley’s dreams every night, which Joy and Sadness hilariously try to interrupt in order to wake Riley up.
Of course, the animation is top-notch. There is nothing else to say about it other than I expect it will look demo-worthy on blu-ray in HD. The voice cast is pitch perfect. Amy Poehler gets to voice a character in Joy who is quite similar to her Leslie Knope, super positive and determined. Phyllis Smith (Phyllis from The Office) is really the standout. She gives Sadness a quality that is like Eeyore, C-3PO, and Marvin from Hitchhiker’s Guide To the Galaxy. Mindy Kaling, Bill Hader, and Lewis Black (who perfectly embodies Anger) are really great as well, all of them getting unique ways to shine. And Richard Kind as Bing Bong is endearing, genuine, and sincere, maybe a little similar to Olaf in Frozen. It’s the kind of character that could be annoying and over-the-top in a lot of other movies, but director Peter Docter never lets him go down that road. Docter deserves a lot of praise for this film, as it’s easy to overlook the director of a Pixar film and just credit Pixar in general, but he shepherded this idea and reworked it since 2009 to get it right. To top it all off, Michael Giacchino provides yet again a score that perfectly compliments the film, and will no doubt earn him another Oscar nomination. In fact, this film getting a Best Animated Feature Oscar nod is probably the surest bet there is right now.
Pixar has put out 15 feature-length films in 20 years. Inside Out, is another high quality piece of entertainment, the type of greatness you expect given Pixar’s track record. It brings out a level of poignancy that few other films are capable of doing, but it’s right in Pixar’s wheelhouse and they handle it all admirably, perfectly balancing the emotional rollercoaster the film takes you on without being cloying or feeling manipulative. It’s also very funny and immensely enjoyable, so the tears you may experience during the last 20 minutes are well worth it. It belongs right up there with the best work that Pixar has done in the past and shows why Pixar is the gold standard, not just in animation, but filmmaking in general.
Rating: 4 1/2 out of 5 stars