Pixar continues to mine complex filmmaking out of simple stories with Inside Out.
The wizards at Disney/Pixar have managed to create some of the most endearing and heart-wrenching animated movies of all time based around a simple premise: a peek into the “secret” lives of things in this world we don’t often think about (toys, bugs, the elderly, superheroes, fish, rats, etc.). Every Pixar flick has used this as its jumping off point, but the nuances and emotional complexities of all of their stories has helped them establish themselves as the animation house to beat in modern Hollywood, and by taking that mission statement to its literal extreme, Inside Out, the studio’s latest, is no exception; a more melancholic yet utterly jubilant trip through the brain.
As far as setups go, Inside Out is as base as they come: what’s going on in your head? Here, the brain is a vast and thriving space where memory banks stretch as far as the eye can see and a being’s mental health is gauged by islands of personality. Young Riley Anderson’s brain is controlled from headquarters by five emotions: Joy (Amy Poehler), Sadness (Philyis Smith), Disgust (Mindy Kaling), Fear (Bill Hader), and Anger (Lewis Black, because who else?), who each do their part in making sure that Riley stays alive and functional. When Riley and her family move from their Minnesota hometown all the way out to San Francisco, the emotions attempt to help her adjust, only for Joy and Sadness to wind up outside of headquarters, leaving Fear, Anger, and Disgust at the controls as Riley navigates her first day of school and conflicting feelings toward her parents’ decision to move them out there in the first place.
The metaphor is about as on-the-nose as it gets, and in execution, the movie can be seen as a spiritual cousin to bodily kids movie Osmosis Jones from 2001; right down to the brain-as-control-center premise and differing color palettes and stylistic aesthetic for Riley’s world vs. her inner one. But like in Osmosis, the sheer joy (and soul-crushing devastation) of Inside Out is in watching all the ways it branches out from its deceptively simple great idea, both funny and sad. Memories take the form of glowing balls, each shaping someone’s personality and color-coded to the prime emotion felt during its creation (yellow for Joy, blue for Sadness, green for Disgust, purple for Fear, red for Anger); while on the outside, Joy and Sadness team up with Riley’s long-forgotten imaginary friend Bing-Bong (Harry Kind), who takes them through Imagination Land (no, not that one), parts of which are being bulldozed as Anger, Disgust, and Fear’s actions send Riley into an early-life emotional crisis; dreams are staged Hollywood-style productions with distortion filters added to the cameras based on how Riley feels; a Train of Thought is always running, but it’s kinda all over the place. The dinner scene that everyone knows from the commercials is one of the many comedic highlights on display here (keep in mind which emotion is in the center seat in both Mom and Dad’s heads), and the emotions have fantastic chemistry throughout.
Inside Out wrings *many* great ideas out of its premise, but they wouldn’t hold nearly as much weight if the cast behind them wasn’t as strong as they are here. Hader, Kaling, and Black all ham it up as their respective emotions, a fitting choice considering that Fear, Disgust, and Anger are seen as reactionary and one-dimensional. The trickiest roles went to Poehler and Smith as Joy and Sadness, two polar opposites who learn to cope. From a certain angle, the borderline irritating jubilance Poehler brings to Joy’s constant over management and downright suppression of Riley’s emotions kind of makes her the unwitting villain of this movie, and marks Smith’s Sadness as the underdog of the story who shares in a handful of Pixar’s most poignant moments to date.
A movie where the protagonists are literal personifications of emotions should feel insufferably pretentious, but Inside Out sidesteps that pit with pure Pixar charm and genuine insight, and is far and away one of the best movies of the year. (Stay through the credits for looks into the heads of supporting characters). The film is now playing.
– CineMasai wept during the heroic sacrifice at the end of the second act.