It’s hard to imagine that we live in a time where Pixar, once thought of as the most unstoppable force of quality working in the movies, has a lot to prove. Known for bold originality and deeply touching storytelling, they tapped into the creative minds of a young and hungry new generation. However, all streaks of greatness eventually have to come to an end, and with Cars 2, Brave, and Monsters University all disappointing audiences, it seemed as though the great cartoonists had perhaps drawn their final masterpiece. “Not so!” cries Pixar, determined to re-capture the magic they once harnessed so effortlessly with Inside Out, which inspired optimism right off the bat with the most fun Pixar premise in quite some time.
That premise takes place both inside and outside the mind of 12 year old Riley (Kaitlyn Dias), who unfortunately has to leave her cute, sleepy little town in Minnesota for San Francisco when her father (Kyle MacLachlan) has to take a new job. Meanwhile, Riley’s five emotions (Amy Poehler), Sadness (Phyllis Smith), Fear (Bill Hader), Disgust (Mindy Kaling), and Anger (Lewis Black), all man a control console inside of her mind that determines every action she takes. Naturally, Joy tries to take an optimistic lead to this new change, but when Sadness accidentally tampers with Riley’s core memories, it sends her entire mental state out of balance, and results in her and Joy being cast out onto the islands that make up Riley’s personality. While her more negative emotions try to keep up a front to damaging effect, it becomes up to Joy and Sadness to get back to the control room before Riley’s entire life completely unravels.
Inside Out does a wonderful job of building the world inside Riley’s brain, deftly blending hefty physiological concepts with sharp comedy. There’s something inventive and new around every turn, and each realm of the brain from the abstract to the subconscious is beautifully designed and animated, projecting Riley’s childlike innocence through colorful, extremely detailed realms. These places not only lead to great comedy (especially involving the little people who do tiny odd jobs within the brain) but as Riley’s innocence starts to break down piece by piece, it makes the emotional impact all the more potent, as the loss of our own colorful little worlds in favor of something more cynical is a concept that will touch each audience member in a different way.
Even though our characters are by default relegated to one emotion, both the script and actors do a fantastic job of making each of them easy to care about. It never seems like they are just flat characters made to feel one way and one way only. Each of them care deeply about Riley, and express that care in different ways. Poehler’s Joy is the obvious stand out. The comedianne channels the warm persona that made Leslie Knope on Parks and Recreation so lovable, while giving Joy enough depth beyond her optimistic persona to make us want to follow her. Smith, who gets to spend the majority of the film playing off Poehler as her literal polar opposite, also scores here with a sweet turn that makes us empathize with Sadness even if she is a bit of a klutz. Hader, Black, and Kaling are mostly there to provide laughs, and completely deliver. Even though these are all very recognizable comedic voices, it’s never distracting. They embody these characters completely, and sell every single gag.
In fact, the stuff going on inside Riley’s head is often so strong that what’s going on outside suffers a little by comparison. While I can certainly empathize with the emotional plight of moving away from home (having done it myself at around the same age), it would not have hurt to have some slightly higher stakes to elicit such a drastic reaction in Riley’s brain. While it can certainly be argued that a child’s brain takes things harder than an adult’s, one more sucker punch would have sealed the deal just a little bit more. With that said, although the movie’s general trajectory is fairly predictable, it rarely feels contrived, as it’s often too busy making it’s audience laugh or chocking them up.
Inside Out is not only the kind of kids movie that gives the genre a good name, but it is by far Pixar’s strongest effort in many years. Smart, hilarious, and at times deeply touching, it tackles some really complicated themes in a way that is universally understandable. Unlike a certain other movie involving small yellow things that makes loud noises, it treats it’s target audience like human beings, and knows in it’s heart that they will follow along with a good story. It doesn’t matter what age somebody is, they will find something to relate to in this film, if they just let the little people inside of their own mind sit back and absorb it.