Well, here we go. Pixar, the animation giant who set the standard for animation in the past decade, is back. Yes, the studio that has made a career out of turning adults into sobbing messes by telling emotional stories has made their comeback by literally telling a story about emotions. Inside Out is the type of film we have come to love Pixar for. Yes, this is a colorful tale featuring cute characters and a thrilling adventure, but there is so much more.
Whether it be the Toy Story franchise, Finding Nemo or Pete Docter’s other films Monsters Inc. and Up, Pixar creates enduring films by communicating simple ideas (family, friends, growing up) we have all experienced by telling stories featuring talking dogs, fish breaking out of prison and a piggy bank with an attitude. Now, with Inside Out, Pixar has created a film that displays the hardship of growing up and coming to terms with the harder emotions of life…all while having a children’s character voiced by Lewis Black. Whether you are here for deep commentary on the struggles of growing up or goofy jokes delivered by an imaginary elephant creature, Inside Out has it all all and I believe a new animation classic has just arrived.
In the outside world, we have Mom, Dad and 11-year old Riley. Riley has had a generally positive life. She loves her family, friends, hockey, and being goofy. Life hasn’t been too hard and the emotions inside her brain have life down to a factory-like system. Her brain (headquarters) is controlled by 5 emotions: Joy (Amy Poehler) was her first emotion and runs the show. Anger (Lewis Black) keeps things in line and makes sure Riley stays tough (this is the emotions of a pre-teen girl we are talking about here). Disgust’s (Mindy Kaling) main role is making sure broccoli does not become a normal part of Riley’s life, I have a feeling that after puberty Disgust starts running the show. Fear (Bill Hader) is both the voice of reason (“watch out for that cord we could possibly trip over”) and the voice of paranoia (there is a great bit where he lays out everything that can go wrong on the first day of school, quicksand is definitely a realistic possibilty). Then there is Sadness (Phyliss Smith) and she…is sad.
For the life of a happy 11-year old girl, joy (the emotion) is her main goal in life and Joy (the character) leads the charge in making sure everything goes smoothly day-to-day. There is no need for Sadness and Joy wonders why she is here and spends most of her management keeping her locked away. After establishing the world of headquarters and our main characters, Riley is moved from her carefree life in Minnesota to the stressful new world of San Francisco. Though the external story sets up a world of conflict, it is insider her head that the adventure is had. Through a mishap of events, Joy and Sadness are separated from the group and the plot is set in motion. While Anger, Disgust and Fear try and run Riley’s emotions (a very unbalanced way of living life), Joy and Sadness try and make their way back to headquarters which leads them on one of the most inventive “road trip” movies of all time.
Inside Out is extremely dense and that is not an insult. The world Docter and company have created is wildly inventive. Every building, every side character, every environment they encounter is not just a fun cartoon, but it is a concept of how the brain works that has been communicated visually. One example is Riley’s memories: they are represented by small marble-like spheres. The memories match the color of the emotion that created them. If at the end of the day she has mostly gold memories, it was a joyous day. Other days, she has more colorful days and we immediately recognize that it was a harder day.
This is the beauty of Inside Out, the film communicates and immense amount of information visually. Yes, there is a lot expository dialogue, as is expected with a film like this (the rules have to be established). After the exposition is given (these are memories and here’s why they are different colors) the filmmakers explore that concept and trust the audience to follow what is happening (this day’s memories are purple, red and blue, Riley had a hard day). Inside Out does this constantly. You learn a new concept and then it becomes part of the film’s visual language to tell a story.
The story moves so fast and concepts are being thrown at you with every new environment that it’s possible the film can wash over you and lose its impact. Let me explain, every time Joy and Sadness meet another character or enter a new environment we as the audience are learning something new. You are trying to figure the world out because it is so inventive (there are office workers discarding old memories, “phone numbers? Those are on her phone anyways! Dump Them!”). Once you master the concept they have just explained you realize that the plot is still moving forward and there is another concept for you to learn.
This is not a fault of the movie, this is what makes Inside Out so brilliant. There is no filler. There is not a lull in the 2nd act. There are not throw away characters. The movie is constantly moving forward taking you on a journey through Riley’s mind, all the while you keep telling yourself, “Hey! I know exactly what they are talking about, I experienced that very thing growing up!” The movie moves so fast and communicates so much information that it is possible to get caught up in the creativity and miss the story, but Docter slows down at the right moments to display emotion in this film about emotion.
I don’t want to give any of the plot away. I will say that the film is powerful in that it tells Riley’s story of growing up; in telling Riley’s emotional development it actually tells the story of every audience member’s life. Male of Female, whatever part of the country we grew up in, we all have those memories that make up the core components of our life. We all have those days where we let one emotion run the show when we know we shouldn’t give in like that. Most important to the story Inside Out tells, we have all had that journey where the realities of life set in and we realized that “joy” was not an option every day.
I would say spoilers for the film at this point, but in reality this is spoilers for real life. If you have grown up then you probably know the “plot” of Inside Out. You can’t be happy every day. You can try. You can push your sadness or fear or anger off to the side all you try, but that’s not healthy. It takes a full emotional experience to be a healthy fully functioning human being. That is the the story Inside Out tells and it is an important one. Riley is not complete if Joy is the only one running the show. She needs all of her emotions in tact to experience life to the fullest.
In a film that features two security guard characters arguing about hats (very funny scene), a location called “Goofball Island,” and features commentary on how brocolli pizza is the worst invention of all time (btw, that’s true), Inside Out is a movie about the human experience. It uses the vocabulary of colors and fun to tell this story, but the story is one of coming to terms with the reality that growing up is hard. Animated films don’t need to have an underlying moral. That’s not the point here. I’m not saying this film is good because it “teaches” our kids an important lesson. I’m saying it is good because it speaks to the deepest emotions of our human experience and it does so while telling a thrilling, fun story. Inside Out is a homerun. I contemplated my own life while celebrating Riley’s fictional life as well–all while laughing at a personified emotion voiced by Lewis Black.