Pixar’s greatest films are those that seem as if they may be too high concept or flat out odd to actually work. Whether this means a robot with a less than limited vocabulary, a house that floats away using helium balloons, a rodent chef or a trilogy of films centered on toys come to life. In fact, if you think about it, the Toy Story trilogy is the most obvious of the bunch, but Pixar’s animators elevated it to something more than just a series of talking toys movies, and delivered some of the most artfully told animated features ever.
Writer/director Pete Docter got his start with Pixar co-writing Toy Story back in 1995 and he didn’t direct his first film until 2001 with Monsters, Inc. He returned eight years later with one of the studio’s best, Up. Now, another six years between films and Docter is going high concept once again with a movie that sounds like there’s no chance it can work on paper, but in the end delivers something complex, unique and, aside from a couple of hang-ups, comes together nicely in the end.
With Inside Out, Docter steps inside the mind of Riley, a young girl whose life is turned upside down when her father accepts a job moving the family from the Midwest to San Francisco. However, this story isn’t told from the young girl’s perspective, but instead from inside her mind, or, more precisely, from the perspective of her five key emotions — Joy (voiced by Amy Poehler), Fear (Bill Hader), Anger (Lewis Black), Disgust (Mindy Kaling) and Sadness (Phyllis Smith). Docter, and a team that included co-director Ronaldo Del Carmen and fellow screenwriters Meg LeFauve and Josh Cooley, has turned the human brain into what can only best be described as a machine built on emotions. Every cog and wheel make not only logical sense, but visual sense meaning you don’t need to focus on the mechanics of what makes all of this works, just the story.
From the moment of Riley’s birth, her eyes pop open and the first emotion she experiences is that of Joy, an animated bundle of energy bringing a smile to the baby’s face. This will be Riley’s dominant emotion, but it isn’t long before Sadness comes along and Riley bursts into tears — the tug of war begins. Add Disgust, Fear and the wildly hilarious voice performance of Lewis Black as Anger and the key traits that make up human emotion are working together (and occasionally against one another) to give Riley her personality.
The psychology of the human brain has never been boiled down with such simplicity. Riley’s key characteristics (hockey, family, honesty, etc.) become physical islands extending from the emotional headquarters of her brain as memories are represented by crystal balls, some of which fall into the catacombs of her lost memories, others making up “core memories”, which she can recall in an instant. It’s these core memories that begin to define Riley and it’s the move from the Midwest to the West Coast that throws Riley’s emotions into a tailspin.
What makes the majority of the film work is the fact you never really feel it trying to work. It doesn’t seem focus grouped or as if it played to test audiences over and over again, even though you know it must have. Admittedly there are a couple moments where things begin to drag and the film’s actual source of tension, which has Joy and Sadness lost among the rows and rows of long-term memories trying to find their way back to headquarters where Fear, Anger and Disgust are clumsily running the show, can become a bit repetitive. It’s also impossible to overlook a gaping plot hole used for comedic effect that could have actually solved Joy and Sadness’ problems but it’s overlooked for the sheer fact the movie would have been over.
As for the voice cast, Poehler’s upbeat, peppy performance gives the film life, though occasionally a bit too much as I think we’ve all spent time with that person that’s a little bit too happy. The same can go for almost all the emotions in fact, though Joy and Sadness really could have taken a backseat a little more often, making room for Hader and Black as Fear and Anger. Anger, for me, carries the show and, in all honesty, this might just be because I’m a guy and a bit of a cynic, but I would have much preferred to see an adult version of this movie with Anger as the driving emotion.
This, however, is where the charm of Inside Out kicks in. You get it, it makes sense and it’s relatable. The mechanics work and even though it pretty much boils down to a 90-minute race against the clock with several obstacles along the way, the heart of the feature is still quite clear. We’ve all experienced conflicts of emotion and mood swings we can’t entirely understand or explain. Docter and his team look at these conflicts from a different perspective while at the same time never losing focus on what exactly they are dealing with. Never once do we forget these are Riley’s emotions and to walk that line is a tough balancing act and while things do get a little bit away from the filmmakers at times, the end result is a well thought out, complex and colorful adventure centered on what makes us… us.
SIDE NOTE: A short film titled Lava plays before the film and I feel bad saying this, but it is truly awful. I won’t bore you with the details, but it involves a singing volcano and it almost made me want to leave the theater and wait to watch Inside Out on Blu-ray three months from now. It was one of the worst short films I’ve ever seen.