Growing up is hard. This isn’t a blanket statement but a universal human condition. The mind of a child on the cusp of adulthood is one fraught with conflicting emotions, changing social situations and tons of what could charitably be called drama. It’s a tough time of life to wrap your head around, and an even tougher one to portray on film. Leave it to Pixar, the animation geniuses behind the likes of Toy Story and Up to take such a daring subject and spin it into gold.
To call Pixar’s 15th animated feature, Inside Out, ambitious is an understatement. We’re introduced to 11-year-old Riley, who moves with her parents from her beloved Minnesota home to the unfamiliar city of San Francisco. Riley’s emotions help control her mood and general outlook on life from a control center inside her brain. But even they’re thrown for a loop by the massive changes in Riley’s life the move brings. Joy (voiced by Amy Poehler), the level-headed leader of the group, attempts to assuage the situation with her always perky demeanor. She often butts heads with Sadness (Phyllis Smith), who is, naturally, kind of bummed out by the whole situation. Anger (Lewis Black) is ready to fly off the handle at any minute. Fear (Bill Hader) sees the worst in the situation and Disgust (Mindy Kaling) is honestly kind of apathetic about it all.
The group is charged with helping create and catalogue not only Riley’s emotions, but her memories. Whoever controls the main console controls the girl’s emotions. But there are some memories, called core memories, that are considered precious, the emotionally charged memories that make her who she is. When these memories are jeopardized, Riley is at risk of losing her true sense of self, and it’s up to her emotions to work together to ensure that doesn’t happen. But can they work together efficiently when their individual personalities are so different, and when the girl they call home is changing so quickly right in front of them?
Yes, the concept is ambitious. But what makes Inside Out such a winner is that the high-minded ideas never overwhelm the clarity and purity of the story. Pixar has mastered this balance over the years, taking a concept such as post-apocalyptic utopia and turning it into Wall-E, one of the studio’s simplest and most emotionally resonant films. This film is much smaller in scope, and yet feels every bit as important. To a young girl whose life appears to be falling apart before her eyes, what could be more important than the way she feels?
The film gets a lot of mileage out of playing off of the reactions and situations of the five emotions. Despite the fact that each one is playing a type by his/her very nature, writer-directors Pete Docter and Ronaldo Del Carmen have done a brilliant job allowing them depth and complexity outside of their pre-determined roles. Allowing the emotions to be fleshed out spares us from a ton of potential clichés.
Inside Out is a visual wonder, even beside the prolific company of Pixar’s previous efforts. Not only are the emotions’ designs incredible, the world they inhabit is so endlessly creative. There are a ton of small visual touches, even in seemingly minor scenes, that do so much to sell this very strange world inside Riley’s head. It’s tough to grasp them all in one viewing, but I think that was the intention. For example, I didn’t catch on until late in the film that the newspaper Anger reads every day contains headlines describing the events that took place in Riley’s life the previous day. How he got the paper, we’ll never know.
This is also Pixar’s most surreal and, I venture to say, scariest film yet. Dealing with concepts such as dreams, imagination, abstract thought and the subconscious, the film could have easily felt overstuffed or drowned out by its own ambition. There’s some seriously weird, chaotic stuff in this movie (one of my favorites is a film production studio that is in charge of writing and producing Riley’s dreams), but the mind of an 11-year-old kid is a weird, chaotic place. Everything is so clearly defined, so expertly laid out within the larger world and story that no strange concept or visual element ever detracts from the purity of the ultimately very simple story the film is trying to tell.
And that is what I think stands out the most to me about Inside Out. The whole movie just feels so effortless. I’m baffled that such a high-minded concept could turn out so well. The storytellers at Pixar have a true gift for taking the most complex themes and boiling them down into the simplest of stories. You don’t have to understand REM sleep or any other myriad complex terminologies the film employs to enjoy it. Like the best animated films, it appears to be made for everyone. Kids will like it, but their parents might come back on date night to see it again.
Inside Out is an absolute marvel, and a stunning return to form for a studio that some feel has lost its way in recent years. It deserves mention alongside the very best of Pixar’s envious output. I couldn’t keep my eyes dry the last 20 minutes of it. Not because it’s sad (although it is), but because it’s also happy, scary, hopeful, thrilling and ultimately life-affirming all at once. Leave it to a film about the glorious complexity of human emotions to make us feel so many.