Continuing in the grand tradition of Pixar masterpieces, Inside Out is an ingenious animated romp about life, the universe, and everything. By transforming nebulous emotions into relatable characters, directors Pete Docter and Ronaldo Del Carmen have created nothing short of a roadmap into the pre-pubescent mind. It’s not always a happy place, which is entirely the point. Often surreal and always delightful, Inside Out is a rousing tribute to pure imagination.
For a child, life is pretty simple; maintain joy at all costs. Inside the mind of a young girl named Riley (Kaitlyn Dias), the competing emotions of Joy (Amy Poehler), Sadness (a brilliant Phyllis Smith), Fear (Bill Hader), Disgust (Mindy Kaling), and Anger (Lewis Black) try to find the delicate balance needed to ensure psychological bliss. At first, it’s easy, as family, friends, and pond hockey feed a never-ending reservoir of happiness. Everything changes for 11 year-old Riley, however, when mom (Diane Lane) and dad (Kyle MacLachlan) trade in the homogenized comforts of rural Minnesota for the diverse metropolis of San Francisco.
Joy’s emotional stranglehold is suddenly threatened by scary new faces, a dilapidated house, and lots of family stress. As Riley introduces herself to a room full of new classmates, her joyous recollections of treasured memories are stained by the realization that those days are over. Soon, she’s weeping in front of her stunned classmates; her idyllic world shattered forever. Now it’s up to Joy to save Riley from a life of bitterness and isolation. Such is the topsy-turvy existence of an 11 year-old.
If Charlie Kaufman were ever entrusted with making a kid’s movie (we can dream, can’t we?), it might look a little something like Inside Out. There’s more than a hint of Being John Malkovich as we travel inside a bright, primary-colored world that’s plummeting into chaotic shades of gray. Our emotional heroes inside “Headquarters” might see things with stark simplicity, but this storyline never plays it safe. The filmmakers take risk after risk, challenging the audience to keep up with them. There are some meaty psychological principles afoot, including repressed memories, abstract thinking, and a journey into our deepest subconscious. And clowns… don’t forget the clowns!
The writing team of LeFauve, Cooley, and Docter gives us an embarrassment of riches. It’s rare to see a script so seamlessly blend setting, character, and theme into such a cohesive and entertaining story. It never preaches. It never condescends. There are no lulls or superfluous scenes of expository dialogue. We learn about the characters through their actions, which keeps things fast-paced and fresh. Live-action or animated, this is the best script of 2015 so far.
While this material is far too dense for younger audiences to fully appreciate, co-directors Del Carmen and Docter provide plenty to hold their attention. It’s a gorgeous landscape of glimmering cities (Riley’s “Islands of Personality”), brightly-colored marbles pinballing about, and energetic characters trying frantically to save their crumbling world. The unrelenting pace and unflagging spirit refuse to loosen their grip on even the most restless toddler.
Ironically, Inside Out has a lower ‘laugh quotient’ than many Pixar comedies. It’s less concerned about setting up proper gags than telling a solid fantasy-adventure story. Though often hilarious, it never relies upon easy sight gags or bodily humor to generate laughs. Instead, we get ingenious bits, like the rambunctious memory engineers who delight in surreptitiously uploading the addictive Triple-Dent Gum jingle at the most inopportune times.
We also get big emotional payoffs, most of them involving Riley’s imaginary friend Bing Bong (Richard Kind), as he desperately clings to the prospect of future adventures with his best friend. This careful blend of sweetness, humor, and melancholy illustrates exactly why Inside Out is such a thematic powerhouse; conflicting emotions can peacefully co-exist if you aren’t afraid to experience them.
Terrific voicework is owed, primarily, to perfect casting. After all, who else could play Anger like Lewis Black, or a disconcertingly-happy sparkplug like Amy Poehler? The real star of the show, however, is Phyllis Smith. Reminiscent of Ralph Wright’s iconic voicework as the saddest donkey in the world, Eeyore, Smith’s voice is charmingly mopey, yet still conveys a heartfelt concern for helping little Riley through her troubles. She’s the perfect foil for Poehler, who threatens to spin out of control at any moment. The weakest link, and possibly the film’s biggest flaw, is failing to utilize Kaling properly. Given that Disgust is largely uninvolved with the story, Kaling often fades into the background.
Still, it’s tough to find many flaws with a meticulously crafted gem like Inside Out. It functions beautifully on every level, be it visual, thematic, or narrative. Like last year’s family extravaganza, The LEGO Movie, this film will yield new treasures with each viewing. It’s the ideal guide to usher 12 year-olds into a brave new world of confusion and discovery. Kids will be playing Inside Out on an endless loop for years to come, and, for once, parents won’t have to dread it.