Year of Release: 2015 Directed by Pete Docter and Ronald Del Carmen. Voices of Amy Poehler, Phyllis Smith, Bill Hader, Lewis Black, Mindy Kaling, Kaitlyn Dias, Diane Lane, and Kyle MacLachlan.
I’ll say it right now before I begin this review: Inside Out is one of Pixar’s top three films.
Before Inside Out begins, Pixar reminds audiences why they are one of greatest creators of family entertainment. With the short film Lava, a cute and funny volcano romance, they take the unoriginal idea of a romance between two inanimate objects and turn it into a sequence of witty wordplay and gorgeous 3D animation. There’s not much to the short beyond that, but the story is cute enough to entertain small children, and the presentation is clever enough entertain adults.
Like Lava, Inside Out contains a vibrant colorful world that is enthralling for any age to behold, and while the story can similarly be followed by any age viewer, there are many nuances which will make the film richer and funnier as it awakens memories of growing up in older viewers.
Growing up is very much at the center of Inside Out. The ten minute prologue both establishes the theme of growing up and serves as a mesmerizing introduction to the world of the film. The prologue showcases sweet and funny incidents from Riley’s life as a baby as she grows into an eleven year old girl (voiced by Kaitlyn Dias). Initially, as a giggling smiling baby, she has one emotion insider her head: Joy (voiced by Amy Poehler). However, Joy is soon joined by the other emotion common to infants: Sadness (voiced Phyllis Smith). As Riley becomes a toddler then a child, three other emotions join Joy and Sadness inside her head: Anger, Fear, and Disgust (voiced by Lewis Black, Bill Hader, and Mindy Kaling respectively).
The five emotions are responsible for guiding Riley through each day and storing her memories as brightly colored balls — a different color for whichever emotion dominates the memory. Yellow = Joy, blue = Sadness, red = Anger, green = Disgust, and purple = Fear. According to Joy, a perfect day consists of an entire wall of glowing yellow globes which are then shipped off to long term memory as Riley falls asleep. Watching the humorous interactions which create those globes (Disgust: “It’s broccoli! He’s trying to poison us!”) and the intricate workings of Riley’s mind makes for Pixar’s most breathtaking and spellbinding prologue since WALL-E.
After the prologue, the story focuses on a particularly difficult transition of growing up: moving from Minnesota to San Francisco and the mild tension it creates in the otherwise great relationship between Riley and her parents (Diane Lane and Kyle MacLachlan). The major upheaval is naturally stressful for the eleven year old Riley, and the five emotions in her head all cope with it according to their functions, which makes it harder for Joy to maintain her perfect days. Adding to Joy’s troubles, Sadness has taken on a new ability, and any memory globe she touches turns blue, appalling Joy that Riley’s memories are now tainted with sorrow.
Initially it seems like Sadness needs to learn not to tamper with the memories and allow Joy to control the headquarters of Riley’s mind as she has always done. “Stay in this circle, the circle of Sadness,” Joy tells her fellow emotion, and that almost seems believable, especially when Sadness touches a memory that leads to an embarrassing incident of Riley crying over the loss of her old home as she introduces herself on the first day at her new school. However, all the emotions have a legitimate place, and Joy’s desire to be the predominant presence in Riley’s mind soon becomes frustrating. After all there are times to celebrate, to mourn, to be afraid, and to be upset.
All the emotions have a useful purpose; Fear stops Riley from being reckless, Disgust stops her from making a fool of herself, Anger gives her determination, Joy keeps her happy, and given Joy’s predominance for awhile it is not clear how Sadness helps Riley. It is clear that all the emotions need to work together to help Riley transition through this difficult phase of her life, and there are hints throughout the film as to how that should be achieved. The answer is far simpler and more ingenious than one would imagine, and director/writer Pete Docter saves the revelation for the perfect moment.
The ancient Greeks believed in four humors, which would be in equal balance if a person were healthy. An excess or deficiency of any one was considered unhealthy. Pete Docter has repackaged that idea as five emotions inside every person’s mind. Any of those five can be absent or over abundantly present, resulting in an ill humor. A major strength of Inside Out is the way it presents a gradual understanding of that balance; Riley’s emotions mature as she does. A humorous episode in which we see the far more mature emotions inside Riley’s parents’ minds furthers that development.
Almost all children see the world very much in terms of black and white, which is one reason it is very rare to see a children’s movie with a morally compromised hero or a conflicted villain who occasionally struggles to do what is right. (With a climax that involves the protagonist apologizing for a serious transgression and a villain having a tragic past, Pixar’s last non-sequel, Brave, is something of an exception to that pattern.) Similarly, explaining to a child how something could be simultaneously happy and sad might not be particularly easy. Inside Out offers an explanation which occurs as a natural result of Riley growing up.
Inside Out‘s climax also shares a similarity with Brave in that the climax of both films is spurred by an overwhelming sense of regret and contrition. The beautiful heart touching scene that follows as a result of that feeling may be my favorite depiction of repentance, forgiveness, family bonding, and maturing in any family film.
In addition to its other strengths, Inside Out provides some very funny explanations for the workings of our brains. When any one emotion gets out of control, the film convincingly portrays how the most illogical destructive decisions seem logical. The pain and awkwardness that many children feel as they approach adolescence is explained by over indulging in one emotion or denying another, both of which are unhealthy.
The film’s coup de maître is showing children (and adults who may need reminding) that all our emotions are intertwined, and that unpleasant experiences are just as important as pleasant ones. Inside Out is not afraid to explore the pain and regrettable decisions which stem from out of control emotions, but it also relishes happy moments with beauty and joy, happy moments which would never exist if it were not for the whole messy and wonderful spectrum that constitutes human nature.
Content Advisory: Nothing really, mild family discord, a depiction of a nightmare involving a mean clown, and a humorously bleeped swear word; only the most sensitive kids would be upset. MPAA rating: PG
Suggested Audience: Kids and up.
Personal Recommendation: A+