Ever since Toy Story’s release in 1994, Pixar has made a reputation for itself as a studio known for it’s touching, evocative storytelling. They’ve pushed the boundaries of innovation in regards to animation, setting a new standard for family films, while standing out with engrossing stories that tug at your heartstrings. It makes me wish that these animated features would qualify for the coveted Best Picture Oscar, instead of being relegated to the lesser Best Animated Feature trophy — many of Pixar’s movies have been well deserving of the title. Pixar’s latest takes new leaps in teaching children, and even adults in kind, the value of coming to terms with your emotions.
WARNING: This review contains a few spoilers. I’ve tried to keep it relatively spoiler-free, but sometimes it’s just plain unavoidable for me. Scroll down to the “final thoughts” section to see an all-encompassing summation of my overall verdict, or go check out the movie fresh in theaters and come back.
Inside Out is very cleverly written. The majority of the overall conflict takes place in the depths of a young girl’s mind, as she struggles to deal with a difficult life change by moving from her childhood home. Riley is known as a happy, fun-loving, and silly girl — largely due to the emotions that reside within her “headquarters” and guide her through life. Pixar manages to explain and rationalize how our minds work in the most adorable way, referencing how it is we get that annoying jingle stuck in our heads, where our memories go, and even the very tangible train of thought.
Joy is the head emotion in charge at the beginning of the movie. It’s her role to ensure that Riley stays happy and remains positive in all aspects of her life. She always has good intentions, but she has a tendency to take control of the command center and neglecting the value of Riley’s other emotions a little too often. While Disgust, Anger, and Fear all represent an obvious utility to her, Joy can’t really wrap her head around Sadness. Joy doesn’t really understand Sadness’ purpose, as they are essentially polar opposites. This is the basis for the conflict. Riley is forced to leave Minnesota, a place she loved and grew up, and because of this Sadness begins encroaching into the picture and begins setting everything off course.
We see brief glimpses inside the minds of other people around Riley as well. In a humorous dinner scene, we look inside the minds of both Mom and Dad, who have funny and unique ways of dealing with conflicts. One thing to note that is the command center inside the adult minds are much bigger and accommodating for the presence of all of their emotions. I made sure to note this, as it is important later. Riley’s command center is much smaller, allowing for only one emotion to operate at once. As a father, I was able to see how this makes sense. Children have a much more difficult time controlling their emotions — almost as if the emotions are in conflict with themselves. This is represented perfectly within Riley’s headquarters, and once Joy and Sadness are inadvertently pulled from their respective positions, all hell soon breaks loose.
Joy guards Riley’s core memories like a hawk, and is very over-protective of them. Sadness’ curiosity causes issues, as she begins to touch these treasured happy moments in Riley’s life. They begin to change color, and are in turn viewed as sad memories. Joy rushes to stop her, to help prevent tarnishing further memories, when both Sadness and Joy are together sucked out of a memory tube and launched into the depths of Riley’s mind. Sound complicated? Well, Pixar manages to handle this complexity with deft hands, portraying the mind as an expansive, but immediately understandable and interesting place.
With Sadness and Joy’s absence, Anger becomes the dominant emotion within Headquarters. As we all should know, when we let Anger take control of our emotions, we don’t always make the best decisions. As Riley’s mind islands that form together to make her personality begin to crumble, Anger concludes that the best option is to run away from her new home in California, and to go back to her childhood home on her own in Minnesota — in the hopes that she will make newer and better memories there. This obviously makes things a whole lot worse, as it starts to put Riley down a dark and dangerous path.
Joy and Sadness encounter numerous funny obstacles on their journey back to Headquarters, including venturing into the realm of abstract thought, and entering into the depths of Riley’s subconscious. Throughout their travels, they encounter the happy-go-lucky Bing Bong, Riley’s imaginary friend from her past. He tries to aid them, but often accidentally puts them on the path of danger. His arc was one of my favorite aspects of this story, and I don’t want to spoil the whole thing for you. Just, get ready to be sad.
Things aren’t all happy inside your mind. Sometimes things change, or fade away, and that is always sad. It’s Joy’s inability to accept Sadness for what she is that causes a lot of the issues. It is perfectly fine to want to be happy, but sad things will happen in life, and you can’t ignore that feeling when it creeps up on you. Sadness becomes a crucial part of this story, as Joy would rather simply ignore things that are difficult and put on a happy face. Sadness is cynical and often down in the dumps, but she has great sympathy for sad situations. She can relate to sad things that Joy just can’t. Over the course of their misadventures, Joy begins to realize that she isn’t the only star of the show.
The other emotions in the movie unfortunately get as much time in the spotlight, which I’m sure they will rectify in the inevitable sequel. There were some great and hilarious moments with both Fear and Anger, but Disgust didn’t have as much to do aside from funny remarks about how things are gross. I really hope that if they do make a second movie, that we’ll get to explore these emotions more as Riley grows further into the teenager girl phase that we all know and are wary of. There’s so much rich storytelling that can be involved once Riley hits more stressful benchmarks in her life. I can’t wait to see that play out.
Every character in the film was perfectly cast. Amy Poehler excels at the fun-loving Joy, utilizing her experience as Parks and Recreation’s ever-positive and proactive Leslie Knope to her advantage. Phyllis Smith has an effective ability to sound meek and morose, which is a great choice for the character Sadness. Mindy Kailing’s droning valley girl voice she honed on The Office sold me immediately on her portrayal as Disgust. Bill Hader’s terrified screams and wavering unease played off well for Fear. Finally, Lewis Black was absolutely perfect for representing the unbridled and sudden rage that encompasses Anger. All of these actors are natural voice talent, and hope to hear them again in a sequel soon.
Like nearly every Pixar movie, this film is ripe with touching, wonderful moments. There were a handful of instances where I found myself tearing up, which made it a little embarrassing to be in a crowded theater surrounded by smiling children. Pixar does such a great job in rewarding parents with an experience that they can enjoy just as much as the kids. The movie makes you think, and prompted a great conversation with my family after the film concluded.
It was great how the film concluded in its final act once the emotions, Sadness included for their importance and usefulness in making Riley a well rounded person. It’s perfectly okay and justifiable to be sad sometimes. It helps validate who we are, and makes us feel warm and satisfied when we have a support system thee to comfort and sympathize with us. It was a beautiful moment, one I’ll personally remember for quite some time.
Inside Out is one of Pixar’s best movies in years. They paint a unique and and engrossing picture of what it’s like inside our heads. They also tell an effective tale of growing up that in many ways exceeds Richard Linklater’s highly touted Boyhood, which I will likely only see just that one time. Animated films make it easy to invest in characters, and a large part of that could be how just plain adorable they are. So far, it is my favorite movie of 2015, and I find it hard to beat. Other movies will have more thrilling action, or more impressive set pieces, or even more complex plots, but the main thing to take away is that Inside Out is a beautiful and funny story about coming to terms with your emotions. You don’t have to be a kid to enjoy this movie, so go see it now!