After disappointing recent years and some lackluster films, Pixar Animation Studios has come roaring back with Inside Out, a complex, emotionally resonant, and astounding story that proves the studio has plenty more classics up its sleeve. All it had to do was tackle a seemingly impossible idea for a story.
Inside Out tells the story of Riley, an 11-year-old girl, and the world inside her mind. Here, people’s minds are made of a vast world where the five emotions – Joy, Sadness, Anger, Fear, and Disgust – control our responses to life and help form the memories that make us up. But when Riley and her parents move cross country to San Francisco, the difficult transition wreaks havoc on her interior life. Worst of all, Joy (Amy Poehler) and Sadness (Phyllis Smith) become lost among Riley’s memories and have to make it back to the control center to restore Riley and keep her from making choices that could harm her life forever.
From just a simple synopsis, it’s clear that Inside Out is a movie that is dealing with some extremely complex and high-minded concepts. But being an all-ages Pixar film, it has the added burden of being both understandable and enjoyable to children. Astoundingly, Pixar has created an experience that can be rewarding to viewers of all ages in different ways. Young viewers can be given the opportunity to understand their emotions in a manner that is easy to digest through the personifications on screen. Young teens dealing with the turmoil of out of control emotions can relate to the changes happening inside Riley for the first time. And adults can reflect on both the changes they experienced growing up and what is happening to their children should they be parents.
The beauty of Inside Out is that it isn’t afraid to dive deeply into the world that it has created. While the film begins in the very small confines of a control room, the adventure that happens means that the world slowly expands into more abstract concepts over the course of the film. From the very start, it’s clear that director Pete Docter and the Pixar team have created a very vibrant and imaginative world. But you may find yourself quickly asking about some of the pieces that make up the landscape. Where do ideas come from? How do we dream? Where do memories go when they are forgotten? What do the minds of other people look like? Many of these are answered in incredibly fun and often hilarious ways throughout Inside Out.
While there is a decently sized cast of characters here, it’s Joy and Sadness who are the leads of the film. Once you understand the point of the Inside Out, it’s clear why these two emotions are at the forefront due to the vital roles they play in Riley’s development. But there are plenty of other memorable performances throughout. Anger (Lewis Black), Fear (Bill Hader), and Disgust (Mindy Kaling) are left to try and control Riley in the absence of their two coworkers, with each having incredibly funny and memorable moments. However, special mention has to be made for Bing Bong (Richard Kind) – Riley’s long-forgotten imaginary friend who helps Joy and Sadness on their journey. What he represents makes a poignant statement on what is both lost and gained when we grow up.
If there is one downside to the movie, it’s that Riley is not nearly as much of a character as the emotions inside her or her parents. Perhaps it is a necessary side effect of having the characters inside her head be the stars, but having her actions and ideas often come from the decisions of other characters means that she is less interesting. But Riley can also be seen as a cypher for the audience, as what we learn about the world in her mind can be a reflection for our own personal experiences.
Pixar has made it known that they consulted with many psychologists and put tons of research into the understanding of the mind when developing Inside Out. Specifically, their consultations with leaders in the field of psychology delved into the roles that emotions and memories play in forming us as individuals. And it shows. The concepts behind this world are not the result of fantasy gone wild. Emotions are characters and memories look like shiny orbs, but they are directly correlated to real life understanding of how people form into unique individuals during childhood development. While it goes without saying, the animation is in great form here. And while it may not be the most visually compelling in Pixar’s canon, it’s the way that abstract concepts are brought to life that makes the animation here so memorable.
The reality behind so many of the ideas on display gives Inside Out its emotional heft. And when the movie hits, it hits hard. Most appropriately for its subject matter and stars, the film is equal parts genuinely hilarious and devastatingly sad. Together, they create an experience that is far more well-rounded and meaningful in its message.
Without spoiling anything, there is a scene close to the end of Inside Out that is absolutely devastating. This is tear-jerking, heartbreaking, emotionally-draining sadness. But it isn’t gimmicky or meant to elicit cheap emotions for the sake of memorability. The honesty and relatability of what Pixar has put on screen means that the emotions felt throughout the story are genuine and powerful.
Interestingly, each of the emotions start off as one note characters at the beginning of the film. While this may ring as shallow writing at first, it makes sense in the larger scope of what Pixar has done with the film. These characters are personifications of a specific emotion. However, the film slowly gives them layers and more complex feelings over the course of the story. By the end, it is clear that the growth of the emotions isn’t just a character arc, but is a reflection of the film’s major idea – the difficulties we face help us grow, allow us to feel more complex emotions, and understand our lives in more meaningful ways.
Like the greatest pieces of fiction, Inside Out transcends age, experience, and bias to get to a core truth that touches us all. That’s something truly beautiful.