Pixar is no stranger to brilliant concepts, whether it’s bringing toys to life in their famous tale of child playthings or a near-silent clean-up robot or a crotchety old man who uses balloons to fly away in his house. But with Inside Out they may just have hit on their most ingenious one yet, used as a springboard for some of the most emotionally resonant, visually resplendent cinema the studio has ever produced.
The plot focuses on a young teenage girl named Riley (voiced by relative newcomer Kaitlyn Dias) who is forced to move with her parents (Diane Lane and Kyle MacLachlan) from the Midwest to the bustling San Francisco, leaving behind her childhood bedroom, school friends and beloved hockey team. She’s going through all the emotions of a normal girl, reacting to new everyday situations.
The masterstroke of the idea comes with the fact that we get to see those emotions visualised as individual characters within Riley’s brain. Joy (Amy Poehler), Sadness (Phyllis Smith), Anger (Lewis Black), Fear (Bill Hader) and Disgust (Mindy Kaling) live in the “Headquarters,” the control center of Riley’s mind where they help advise her life. When something goes drastically wrong and two of the emotions get lost, disrupting Riley’s ability to feel all emotions, they must try and find their way back to where they belong so that she can back to living her normal life.
Very few films are able to make all their components work together in pretty perfect symphony but Inside Out does just that. It’s a film about emotion and feelings but not just making us experience those while watching but exploring why we do. Its visualisation of the emotions we all feel on a day-to-day (heck, often minute-to-minute basis) in the form of distinct, colour-coded characters is not just a way to create bright and shiny, cutesy and quotable figures to keep the kiddies happy – although they’re certainly those things in spades – but a wonderful way to draw us in and get us invested in Riley because we’re literally seeing what makes her tick.
Each of the Emotions are archetypes by nature but they’re also extremely well-drawn, pardon the pun, and each of their specific attributes used for maximum laugh capacity. They’re also fantastically voiced by a stellar cast, whether it’s Poehler’s fittingly ecstatic Joy whose job it is to always look on the bright side of life or Kaling’s brilliantly no-nonsense Disgust coming in handy whenever Riley is forced to eat all her vegetables or dress a certain way at school. Stealing the show, however, is Smith as Sadness because of her absolutely perfect vocal representation of an emotion that’s at once crucial and arguably the most damaging.
It rolls out the John Lasseter/Pixar mantra that story should come before anything else and once there’s something tangible and emotionally resonant that we can hold onto then the rest of the ingredients are layered on top. It’s something that one or two of the lesser Pixar films have failed to do (*cough* Cars 2! *cough*), choosing bells and whistles over a meaningful story, but Inside Out proves just how adept the studio can be at it.
We can all relate to Riley’s story of moving away to a new house and just not feeling at home, with scary new experiences being heightened by the emotions of a budding and still-growing mind. Kids will see themselves in it as they are, adults will see their younger selves in it as they were and both audience groups will find plenty to revel in. Importantly it’s never a film that talks down to the younger audience at which it’s partly aimed, never above jumping around in a fit of youthful silliness while also containing some of the cleverest sight gags, wordplay and cultural references the big-screen has seen in a long time. It also has one of the most emotional, lump-in-your-throat endings of any Pixar movie and as anybody who’s seen Toy Story 3 will know, that’s not something to be said lightly.
The film is split between the regular outside world and the inside of Riley’s head and it’s in the latter that the most fun moments most naturally come. Furthering the central concept, the girl’s memories are visualised as orbs that shine a colour corresponding to whatever type of memory it is – yellow would be for her learning to ride a bike, blue would be when she fell and hurt herself and so forth – and this takes us to the various “lands” of her mind that are most important to her through which Joy and Sadness must traverse on their journey back to Headquarters. More abstract concepts and ideas are visualised here, from Riley’s childhood friend Bing Bong (voiced by the incomparable Richard Kind), a party candy floss-part-animal hybrid to the literal Train of Thought, and they are as entertaining as they are ingenious. It’s this sort of imagination that really does set Pixar apart from the rest.
Under the direction of Pete Docter (Monsters Inc., Up) and storyboard artist-turned-co-director Ronaldo del Carmen, Inside Out is nothing short of a wondrous piece of family entertainment, one to which we can all relate in one way or another, whether you’re at ages with its central character or a long-in-the-tooth adult fondly remembering the good old days when everything didn’t seem so complicated. And yet it was always complicated, as we can all attest, at least in our minds. Emotions play a part in our lives from the moment we’re born and Pixar’s cinematic representation of them is the kind of witty, inventive and emotionally resonant film that just doesn’t come along all that often.