Pixar's latest animated adventure is their weirdest, most universal picture yet.
Pixar’s Inside Out is that is both the weirdest and the most universal movie the studio has ever made. It’s from the mind of Pete Docter, who’s brainstormed one of the most conceptually out-there movies in the studio’s history, a coming-of-age story like no other that stands as one of Pixar’s very best offerings.
Inside Out goes smaller than Pixar’s ever gone before; smaller than Toy Story, smaller than Ratatouille, even smaller than A Bug’s Life. It takes us inside the mind of an 11-year-old girl named Riley, who’s piloted by five adorable sprites bouncing around a Star Trek-inspired command center inside her head. Each of them personifies one of Riley’s primary emotions: Joy is played by Amy Poehler, Sadness by Phyllis Smith, Anger by Lewis Black, Fear by Bill Hader and Disgust by Mindy Kaling. (They all fill their roles perfectly, though Smith’s performance is particularly outstanding.)
The story’s outer layer follows Riley as she goes through a common childhood dilemma: she’s been uprooted from her hometown in Minnesota to move to a stuffy, two-story fixer-upper in San Francisco with her mom (Diane Lane) and dad (Kyle MacLachlan), who hopes to get his start-up off the ground. She goes through all the crises associated with this kind of adjustment period you’d expect, but the film’s primary concern is the chaos that ensues in her candy-colored “headquarters.”
To this point, Joy’s been the captain of the ship, helping to fill Riley’s head with happy memories represented by golden orbs that pop into the control room like glowing gumdrops on a conveyor belt. But due to Riley’s sudden, upsetting change of environment, the control room begins to look more like a panic room. Sadness feels a sudden urge to take the reins as her blue orbs begin popping into the control room instead of the Joy’s golden ones. Joy tries her best to suppress sadness’ takeover, but when an accident flings both of them out of the control room, Riley’s world is thrown into disarray. While Anger, Fear and Disgust jostle and compete back in the control room, Joy and Sadness try to find a way back home as they traverse the outer reaches of Riley’s headspace.
Emotionally, Inside Out gets pretty turbulent. As things begin to break down inside Riley’s mind, we see her slowly descend into depression in the outside world, mourning the loss of her old friends, her hockey team, her old house, and a time when her parents didn’t bicker so much. It’s likely that audience members who haven’t reached Riley’s age yet won’t recognize the gravity of certain scenes of desperation and loneliness, but Docter and co-director Ronnie del Carmen handle much more sensitive, layered issues than in most of Pixar’s previous work.
The movie’s mostly a comedy, though, with the cast providing some big laughs to go along with the endless string of visual gags. Erratic, twisted humor is provided by Richard Kind, who voices Bing Bong, Riley’s childhood imaginary friend who’s been pushed to the back of her mind, doomed to a vagabond existence. The wide range of emotion covered by this character was a welcome surprise.
Though designed to appeal to mainstream audiences, Inside Out is audacious because it dares to visualize cognitive experiences, like when songs get stuck in your head, how long-term memory works, where dreams come from, and why we forget imaginary friends. The craftsmen at Pixar manage to represent these complex mental inner-workings in inventive ways, like a long-term memory night crew who discard Riley’s least valuable memories as she sleeps (piano lessons get the boot, save for “Chopsticks” and “Heart and Soul.”) These concepts are clever and often hilarious, and I have no idea how Pixar got them to fit together so perfectly to make up such a cohesive mental ecosystem, but there’s more to them than that.
From the “Train of Thought” to “Dream Productions,” a film studio in charge of amusing Riley as she sleeps, every little piece of the world Pixar’s created represents a piece of us. All of us. We feel connected to the characters because they exist within us already. We know them. They way they jockey for position in Riley’s head? We feel that competition play out inside us every day of our lives. That’s the key to Inside Out‘s power. It’s recognition, empathy, consolation, acceptance; everyone on the planet can relate to this movie. This isn’t a story about Riley’s brain. We don’t see talking synapses or blood vessels or grey matter. This story is about Riley’s mind. In other words, it’s a story about the nature of feeling.
Colorful, detailed and stylized, the imagery churned out by Pixar is jaw-dropping as usual. Design is the strong suit, though, as the surface-level aesthetics don’t quite have the richness or texture of movies like Toy Story 3 and Up. The scenes outside Riley’s head look phenomenal, but the “inside” scenes look too sterile and clinical, resembling more of a Dreamworks or Disney Animation aesthetic. (That’s a minor, minor knock, as those two studios have produced some terrific-looking work.)
The movie’s most glaring weakness is the Disgust character, who largely feels inconsequential. Kaling is fine in the role, going all-out diva, but Disgust is easily the least defined character of the five mains. Another stumble is the movie’s middle section, which feels slightly bloated. Joy and Sadness visit some amazing places on their way back home, but their journey feels too linear. These lapses in excellence are fleeting, though, as the sheer magnitude of Docter and Pixar’s ambition and imagination burns bright in every piece of character and set design, making it hard not to get swept up at any given moment.
The patented Pixar “big idea” here is that we must express and be in tune with our emotions because they’re what connect us with others. It’s a legitimately profound message, and though it can be argued that it’s just plain common sense, to see these psychological maneuverings play out on-screen forces you to take a look back at all the times you’ve pushed others away, or went back on a promise, or ran away from a difficult situation, all because you insisted on keeping your emotions locked up. Inside Out encourages us to open the floodgates.