Inside Out (2015): Written by Pete Doctor, Meg LeFauve, and Josh Cooley, directed by Pete Doctor and Ronnie del Carmen. Starring: Amy Poehler, Phyllis Smith, Bill Hader, Lewis Black, Mindy Kaling, Richard Kind, Kaitlyn Dias, Diane Lane, Kyle MacLachlan, and, of course, John Ratzenberger. Running Time: 94 minutes.
I suppose I should start this with a weeping confession that I, too, had joined the ranks of heartbroken masses convinced that Pixar’s glory days, at least for now, were behind it. Both the noticeable drop of quality in their works following Up and Toy Story 3 and the announcement that the coming years would mostly just bring a slew of unneeded and unasked-for sequels to earlier, greater works seemed to be unmistakable signs that the great animation powerhouse that rose to challenge Disney in the late 90’s was finally succumbing itself to Disney Syndrome, willing to sit back for a while and just rest on its laurels, yet still somehow roping in every Academy Award for animated movies simply through being the lone nominated film any of the voters bothered to see that year.
While that would, generally speaking, be true, I always found the hand-wringing over the “Fall of the House of Pixar” to be a bit overdramatic. Sure, it looked like Pixar was drifting away from the focus of powerfully-written “original” ideas that became its hallmark in the 90’s and 2000’s, but it’s important to remember just how impossibly spoiled we were for a while there. As fantastic as the run of Ratatouille, Monsters Inc., The Incredibles, Finding Nemo, Up, and the Toy Story franchise was, no studio can keep up a streak like that indefinitely. So some uncertain times for the animation giant were always somewhere in the cards. Nonetheless, it is indeed an immense relief to see that, even if the 2010’s end up being less definitive and revolutionary for American animation than the 2000’s were, Pixar is still capable of providing us with films like Inside Out, tales of immense and invaluable artistic integrity and beauty.
The twist this time around is that, while we do have a nominal human as a protagonist- a 11-year-old girl named Riley- the real characters of the story are Riley’s five core emotions, each represented as their own figure and personality, vying for control over how Riley interprets and responds to the world around her. The details of how the movie visualizes something so ethereal is astounding to watch. A central control panel is used to put ideas into words and actions, many of them provided by literal trains of thought that pop in and out of existence. Experiences that become new memories roll down a shoot as a glowing, glass ball, and most of them are then shipped out while Riley sleeps to long-term memory. Special ones, designated “core memories” that shape key aspects of Riley’s personality, are assigned a special storage rack of their own inside the central room where the core emotions reside. They each, in turn, are the basis of each of Riley’s Islands of Personality. At the beginning of the movie, she has five, although we eventually learn that the number of such islands one can have is not by any means fixed. The emotions themselves are hypnotizing to look at, seemingly composed of endless tiny glowing light particles.
Each of the five voices cast are perfect fits for their respective emotions- there is the ebullient Joy (Amy Poehler), morose Sadness (Phyllis Smith), sneering Disgust (Mindy Kaling), over-wrought Fear (Bill Hader), and, my favorite of the bunch, Lewis “Smoking-Out-Of-His-Ears” Black as livid Anger. While Disgust, Fear, and Anger get some of the movie’s better gags, the narrative heavy hitters are Joy and Sadness. In a fitting parallel to the travails and growth of Riley as a whole person, each of the emotions is still learning their proper function as well. Joy tries way too hard to run the show, seeking to shunt away Sadness and keep her from touching any of Riley’s memories, ESPECIALLY the now very precious ones from Minnesota (when one of the emotions directly touches a memory, especially a core one, they seem to “color” it with their essence, meaning that that emotion will be the one Riley will primarily feel whenever she recalls it).
However, Joy’s efforts to push away Sadness and keep Riley constantly happy grow increasingly impossible to manage, where the loud, cacophonous dissonance of Riley’s new circumstances seem to bring one problem after another. Each bad or uncomfortable experience leaves Joy and the others befuddled about how to respond, until after one particularly bad incident results in Joy and Sadness are launched out of headquarters and into the endless shelves of Long-Term Memory.
Now, with only Anger, Disgust, and Fear at the helm, Riley starts to head down a very self-destructive path, one that breaks apart the core aspects of her personality we spent the first part of the film becoming familiar with. Literally unable to feel either joy or sadness, and effectively falling into depression as a result, Riley is literally losing her entire sense of self. Thus, Joy and Sadness have to put aside their differences and find their way back in time. They even eventually get some help from Riley’s old imaginary friend, Bing Bong, who had been toiling away for years in Long-Term Memory, forgotten. And along the way, each is forced to learn a bit more about their proper role in maintaining Riley’s sense of being.
Much has made of the “accuracy” with which Inside Out depicts the various interior workings of the conscious and subconscious mind, but I feel it bears remembering that, for all our advances in technological studies, the mind still remains a realm where both individual and broader cultural perspective matters immensely- the “Five Central Emotions” concept used here is just one interpretation of many in terms of how the mind operates, one that is not accepted globally. There may come a time when future neuro-scientists look back at this movie as hilariously backwards and quant.
That said, how this movie depicts the literal machinations of the mind is ultimately far less important than what it has to say about life in general, and about the trials of growing up and learning to see the world through fuller, more mature, and more emotionally complex eyes. Fittingly, it is a journey each of the emotions need just as much as Riley as a whole does. At long last, we have a wonderfully made family film that lots of people are going to see that actively avoids simple answers for the problems of self and growth that it presents. One of the core messages of the film is so simple, yet so forgotten by many, that it’s practically revolutionary- sometimes, you just need to feel sad for a bit to make happiness seem all the sweeter.
As with most Pixar works, Inside Out not only gets the core of visual and written storytelling right, it is also stuffed to the gills with lavish side details that fill out the film wonderfully. A sequence where Joy, Sadness, and Bing Bong experience the stranger, more abstract mental states stands out as being some of the most creative and interesting animation we’ve yet seen in a CGI work. Also, on the occasions where we jump out of Riley’s head and into the minds of other people, note how the control panels and emotions of each mind are arranged. Note which emotions seem to occupy center stage (Joy in Riley’s case, but not so in others) and which ones are more to the side, suggesting which emotional states dominate the daily life of the individual concerned. Also note that, while the 5 emotions seem to have the same form in every mind, within each person they all display some aspect of the real person’s physical appearance, regardless of whether or not said aspect fits to an emotion’s apparent “gender.”
While the whole movie is filled with great laugh moments, the character that provides the most consistently is easily Lewis Black as Anger, which deserves its own gold trophy for Perfect Casting. Another favorite moment of mine happens towards the end. I won’t spoil it, but will say that, speaking from personal experience, it perfectly encapsulates a large part of what being a hormone-ridden teenage boy feels like.
The movie has already been out for a while, so you have all heard the hype, but like with my other favorite film of the year, Mad Max: Fury Road, Inside Out earns every word of praise spoken in its honor and more. If you missed it in theaters, make sure to treat yourself to the DVD the minute it comes out.