It bears repeating one more time just how incredible 2014 was for animation in film. It wasn’t just incredible because of Song of the Sea, The Boxtrolls, or The Book of Life, or even because of Big Hero 6, How to Train Your Dragon 2, or The Lego Movie.
No, it was incredible because we got so many stellar animated films, even though Pixar brought nothing to the table.
It would not be an exaggeration to say that Pixar’s movies defined a generation. The Toy Story trilogy, Finding Nemo, Monsters Inc., The Incredibles, and at least the first ten minutes of Up are all undisputed instant classics. Even Ratatouille and A Bug’s Life, while not anywhere near as good, might at least be considered overlooked gems. That’s some very impressive momentum, but I think we all knew Pixar couldn’t keep it going forever.
It was nothing short of painful to watch Pixar backslide into Cars sequels and Monsters Inc. prequels that nobody asked for, while continuing to churn out Toy Story short films instead of either giving the franchise a proper continuation or letting it go out with dignity. And of course, that isn’t even getting started on how grossly Brave was mishandled.
So Pixar took a year off to regroup, and we all seemed to agree that it wasn’t a bad decision. But there was still a bit of a sting to watch just about everyone else eat Pixar’s lunch. The competition had grown stronger in the absence of the reigning champion, and Pixar faced huge expectations like never before.
Yet even with those sky-high expectations, compounded by glistening reviews, Inside Out completely blew me away.
Our movie begins with the birth of Riley, voiced by newcomer Kaitlyn Dias. We then go into Riley’s head to witness the creation of Joy (Amy Poehler), our protagonist, who’s responsible for everything that Riley does and remembers out of happiness. Joy is quickly followed by Sadness (Phyllis Smith), and it should go without saying that the two polar opposites don’t play well together.
Over the next eleven years of Riley’s life, Joy and Sadness are joined by Fear, Anger, and Disgust (respectively and brilliantly voiced by Bill Hader, Lewis Black, and Mindy Kaling). A pecking order is very quickly established. Joy is the leader of the pack, responsible for keeping Riley happy. Disgust keeps Riley safe from anything that she thinks might be poisonous (like broccoli, for instance), Fear keeps Riley safe from everything else, Anger is there when Riley needs to assert herself, and Sadness… well, no one can quite figure out what Sadness is good for. Yet.
Anyway, the team of five emotions do a solid job of getting Riley through her childhood, managing her actions and stocking up a huge bank of happy memories. In this film, by the way, memories are represented as glowing balls, each color-coded to a specific emotion (gold for joy, red for anger, blue for sadness, purple for fear, and green for disgust). Short-term memories are kept within arm’s reach of the emotions, who reside in Riley’s “Headquarters.” And every night, when Riley goes to sleep, the short-term memories are flushed out to be sorted in long-term memory storage. That’s managed by “Forgetters,” (voiced by Paula Poundstone and Bobby Moynihan) who toss out memories that are either unnecessary or faded out from lack of use. They’re kind of like the Minions, only about a million times more funny and less annoying.
However, there are five memories that never leave Headquarters. These are the “core memories,” such hugely influential and beloved moments in Riley’s life that they’ve become the foundation for different aspects that make up her personality. In this case, the big five aspects are that she loves her family, she’s honest, she loves hockey, she loves her friends, and she’s a total goofball. Each of them are illustrated by “islands” powered by the core memories, and the concept works far better visually than I could possibly describe here.
Getting back to the story, Riley grew up happy and healthy as a kid in Minnesota. But then her family packs up and moves to San Francisco. That would be culture shock enough, but the long and difficult move is compounded by a wayward cargo truck that leaves the family without most of their belongings. Also, Riley is left to feel alone, since her parents (voiced by Diane Lane and Kyle MacLachlan) have to deal with the business-related matters that brought them to the west coast in the first place.
It’s a tough time for the girl, but Joy is there to try and hold everything together and make sure Riley keeps a sunny disposition. Then Sadness starts acting up, interfering with things in unprecedented ways. To make a long story short (too late!), Joy and Sadness get swept away into long-term storage, taking the core memories with them. This leaves Fear, Anger, and Disgust in Headquarters, trying their best to do whatever they think Joy would do.
Of course, that’s just what we see. To the outside world, Riley acts like a mopey kid who’s completely forgotten who she is at heart, withdrawing herself from friends and family, passive-aggressively acting like everything’s okay. It’s a perfectly normal reaction to such a huge transition. Yet we’re seeing it from this fantastic new perspective.
This mundane and unremarkable story is made to feel epic in scope because we’re seeing it from the sprawling, colorful, heavily populated world of Riley’s mind. What’s more, because Riley’s emotions are portrayed as characters for us to invest in, and because her deteriorating mental health is portrayed by way of so much destruction, we are led to be very heavily invested in Riley’s emotional well-being.
Speaking of which, the inept trio of Fear, Anger, and Disgust each work very earnestly with the best of intentions toward Riley and they sincerely want her to be happy. Yet the results are catastrophic because they aren’t equipped to do what Joy can. As for Joy herself, she gradually comes to learn over the course of the movie that happiness is not the solution to everything and she may not really know best all the time. In many ways, she resembles the kind of domineering parent who gets so blinded by her good intentions that she forgets to let go and quit making things worse with her meddling (see also: Marlin of Finding Nemo). But again, the angle of portraying this by way of emotion brings a certain novelty to the story point.
As for Sadness… well, I’m loathe to get into specifics. In many ways, Sadness is the true main character of this movie, since so much of the movie is about all five emotions learning where she fits in with regard to Riley’s overall well-being. Suffice to say that Riley is going through a lot of huge changes in her life, and she’s dealing with stress on a level that she’s never had to cope with before as an innocent grade-schooler. Some can deal with that stress through laughter or anger, but there’s a lot of healthy catharsis to be found in a good cry as well. There’s also a fascinating scene in which sadness is shown to be the root of sympathy, which in turn can lead to interpersonal connections that are helpful for everyone involved.
In summary, the movie is built around the idea that every emotion has its place. It sends a message that we shouldn’t be afraid of our fear or sadness, done in a creative and poignant way that will resonate with kids and adults alike. In fact, so much of the film is rooted in five such basic and universal emotions that anyone of any age could understand and appreciate the themes on display. Moreover, pretty much everything in this film about memories, emotions, personality, etc. is at least partially rooted in actual science. This helps the audience maintain the illusion that this film really is playing out in someone’s head, and something like it is playing out in everyone else’s head as well. It implicitly encourages the audience to reflect and think about which emotions they allow to be put in charge. What are our core memories? What was playing out in our head when we were Riley’s age? Everyone will have different answers, which means that everyone will have their own unique, personal, intimate connection with this movie.
Of course, it’s not all moody introspection. There are some action scenes here and there, but the comedy is the real attraction here. There’s some hilarious dialogue from start to finish, especially in the banter between emotions. In particular, there are scenes in which we’re watching Riley while hearing her inner monologue, except that her inner “monologue” is actually an argument between her emotions, which we see played out on her face. Amazing.
The film also shows a whimsical kind of humor with regard to portraying certain aspects of the human psyche. The aforementioned workmanlike Forgetters are one example, but the portrayal of Imagination Land as a giant demented movie studio is another great case in point. There’s a whole sequence about abstract thought, featuring some truly ingenious animation. Though my personal favorite would have to be the Train of Thought, an actual train that travels all throughout Riley’s mind without much in the way of a pattern. Oh, and I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention Bing Bong (Richard Kind), Riley’s old forgotten imaginary friend who serves as our comic relief and guide through long-term memory.
Incidentally, you’ll want to sit through at least the first half of the credits. This is when we get to revisit several background and supporting characters to see what’s going on in their heads. It’s hilarious.
Even better, this is when Rashida Jones pokes her head in for a cameo voice role. Frank Oz and Dave Goelz also get minor voice roles opposite each other, and pitting two classic Muppet veterans against each other was a stroke of genius. Flea — the bassist from the Red Hot Chili Peppers, of all people — gets a cameo as well. And of course, you’ll want to keep an ear out for Pixar mainstay Jeffrey Ratzenberger.
Moving on, the visuals are astounding. The colors are absolutely brilliant, and the device of color-coding emotions was a great touch. This is especially useful with regards to Riley’s wardrobe, with colors that reflect her emotional state in clever ways. The whole movie is made to feel vibrant and energetic, though it helps that Michael Giacchino is on hand to provide yet another masterful Pixar score.
Now. Let’s move on to the nitpicks.
First of all, the film is often inconsistent with regard to its portrayal of certain concepts. It’s not entirely clear which concepts exist in Riley’s mind as characters and structures, as opposed to which ones only look like glowing orbs. This gets especially confusing when we delve into Riley’s subconscious, where her worst fears and memories live as giants for whatever reason.
Speaking of which, we’re clearly shown on multiple occasions that this entire system revolves around memories. We can see for ourselves that there are several ways for Headquarters to recall memories, even from long-term storage. Hell, there are some memories that get sent to Headquarters even when they’re not called for. (You know when a song gets stuck in your head? Yeah, that makes for a wonderful running gag here.) So, if Joy and Sadness are trying this hard to get the core memories back to Headquarters, why don’t they use any of these devices and pathways to get the job done? Seriously, it should not have taken them until the third act to figure that out.
This brings us to the climax. I’m sorry, I was not impressed with the climax. From where I was sitting, the filmmakers had clearly written themselves into a corner and they had to come up with some utterly ludicrous ways to get themselves out. Then again, with a premise this inherently boundless, why the hell not?
I suppose I should also bring up the prologue, which is comprised of a great big expository voice-over info dump. I know that technically, this would count as lazy storytelling. Yet Poehler goes through it all with such bubbly charm and the voice-over is accompanied by such breathtaking visuals that the pill is much easier to swallow. And anyway, there are a lot of very bizarre concepts that the audience has to understand moving forward. I’m afraid that a ton of exposition is necessary to understand what’s going on, and I’m at a loss for a more economical and story-driven means to convey all of that.
(Side note: I suppose I should make a passing note about Lava, the short film that preceded the feature. Meh. It was sorta cute, but fell very far below the usual sky-high standard that I’ve come to expect from Pixar and Disney’s animated shorts.)
Inside Out is a movie that’s intimate, epic, personal, and universal all at once. It’s a movie that will grow and evolve with its audience like only the best kids’ films do. I was dazzled by the energy and creativity on display, to say nothing of the flawless voice work, the breathtaking animation, and the masterful score.
I enjoyed the 3D option, and the effects were good enough that I didn’t regret paying the premium, but I doubt I would miss the option if I were to see it again in 2D. No matter the format, I strongly recommend seeing this movie and bringing along any kids you know. Then buy the DVD and revisit it ten years from now. I have a strong feeling it’s going to be one of those movies.
Words can’t describe how good it is to see Pixar returning to form. So what’s next? *checks Wikipedia* Something called The Good Dinosaur, set to be released this November. After getting delayed for a year and a half. And changing directors. And changing producers. And replacing the musical composer. Pretty much the entire voice cast was swapped out midway through production as well. And I see that nobody’s been credited for the finished screenplay just yet.