2014 marked the first time in 15 years that Pixar didn’t release a movie but it turned out to be well worth the wait. Inside Out breaks new ground in terms of emotional resonance and ambitious storytelling, resulting in one of Pixar’s strongest efforts yet.
The premise is inventive yet deceptively simple – it’s a peek inside the mind of 11-year-old Riley (Kaitlyn Dias) and the five anthropomorphized emotions that control her every thought and action from the epicentre of her brain. There’s bubbly and optimistic Joy (Amy Poehler), morose Sadness (Phyllis Smith), prone-to-outbursts Anger (Lewis Black), popular girl Disgust (Mindy Kaling), and slapstick-y Fear (Bill Hader) – all perfectly cast.
When Riley’s mom and dad (played by Diane Lane and Kyle MacLachlan) uproot her from her familiar Minnesotan existence to a new life in San Francisco, her emotions battle for control of her conscious mind and struggle to make sense of a new house, friends, school and city. It’s a relatable issue given great stakes and import by gazing inwards at the inner workings of Riley’s mind.
That mind is set up elegantly in the opening minutes, as the five (sometimes warring) emotions control Riley’s actions and memories (and everyone else’s too – we get glimpses into her parent’s heads) through a central console in Headquarters. They create memories that feed Riley’s core personalty “islands” (like Family, Friendship, Hockey and Goofiness) and protect the all-important “core memories” that make Riley who she is.
Under pressure from the move halfway across the country and feeling the ramifications of the change, Riley’s mood and outlook are altered as Sadness – who Joy shunts aside and doesn’t see the purpose of – begins changing previously happy memories to sad ones. When Joy tries to characteristically make everything better, she’s whisked away from headquarters on a journey throughout Riley’s conscious and unconscious mind with her mismatched buddy Sadness. Their mission: to protect Riley’s core memories and try and prevent her personality islands from collapsing as the hapless Anger, Disgust and Fear are left in charge of Headquarters.
The sure-footedness of co-directors and co-writers Pete Doctor (Up) and Ronaldo Del Carmen means that all this setup is managed economically and simply, ensuring that the rules of the inner world are clear. The fun comes in not just the interactions between the emotions (which feel off-the-cuff and half improvised in the best way possible), but in the sheer joy of discovering how the filmmakers’ realize Riley’s mind. There’s the looming, library-like stacks of long-term memories, the dream factory that looks like an old film backlot, complete with posters for such classic dreams as “I’m Falling For A Very Long Time Into A Pit” and “I Can Fly!”, and even a representation of the four stages of abstract though that is seriously perceptive and out there for any movie, let alone what is ostensibly a children’s film.
There’s also a physical “train of thought” and a subterranean cave that houses unconscious thoughts. And what would the mind of a child be without an imaginary friend? The goofy Bing Bong (Richard Kind) lurks around Riley’s memories, already half-forgotten. He’s an amalgam of various animals (explaining his creation by a 3-year-old Riley with “Animals were very big at the time!”) and while he initially threatens to be a one-note tour guide, Bing Bong ends up as a nuanced presence and one of the highlights of the film.
That grace and wit extends to the whole movie, as there’s not really a wrong note hit in the entirety of Inside Out‘s runtime. The interplay between Joy and Sadness is dynamic and integral, as it heavily informs the plot and the changes that Riley’s going through. There’s plenty of big laughs to be had (Fear’s physical comedy should appeal to younger viewers, while Anger is basically Lewis Black animated – complete with a flaming volcano of a head) and some surprisingly heartfelt moments in a movie that should appeal to, well, everyone.
It’s an epic tale that takes place within the confines of a young girl’s mind, a premise so strange and idiosyncratic that of course the wizards at Pixar had to tackle it. Inside Out argues for emotional intelligence and self-awareness while making plain the case that all emotions have their time and place. It’s smart but accessible, hilarious and thrilling, and simply great.
The transcendently realized Inside Out can easliy join the pantheon of Pixar’s finest accomplishments, sitting comfortably near the top in the elite company of greats like Wall-e, Up and Ratatouille.
Inside Out (2015)
Directors: Pete Docter & Ronaldo Del Carmen
Runtime: 94 minutes