Not that Pixar’s latest animated feature release needs any help from me, substantially beating Avatar’s record for the highest-grossing opening weekend of any movie ever that wasn’t a sequel to something; nevertheless, add my voice to the chorus of critics praising Pete Docter’s Inside Out to the skies. As befits a movie whose audacious goal is to render the emotional workings of the human mind in colorful symbols that even young children can intuitively grasp, all the while staying more or less scientifically accurate, Inside Out is fiendishly smart and subversively funny. Most impressively, it sparkles with originality – a quality all-too-rarely seen in a movie market that is deadeningly reluctant to risk millions on anything but a tried-and-true formula.
The movie tells the story of Riley (voiced by Kaitlin Dias), a happy, well-adjusted 11-year-old girl with loving parents (Diane Lane and Kyle MacLachlan) who loses her verve after the family moves from Minnesota, where she excelled at hockey, to the drabbest, dingiest-looking version of San Francisco ever to appear on film. Or rather, it tells the story of five characters who live inside Riley’s head, vying for control of her emotions: bubbly yellow Joy (Amy Poehler), her team captain; schlumpy blue Sadness (Phyllis Smith); volatile red Anger (Lewis Black); panicky purple Fear (Bill Hader); and snarky green Disgust (Mindy Kaling).
Things don’t go well for Riley in her new home. Dad’s new job with an IT startup means that he’s never around, while Mom is constantly on the phone trying to find out where the moving company sent their worldly goods. So Riley sleeps on the floor in a sleeping bag; breaks down in front of the class on her first day in an urban school where nobody looks blonde and Midwestern like her; loses her nerve at hockey tryouts and doesn’t make the team; finds out that her best friend back home has already replaced her with a new BFF. Before long she has blown up at her Dad, gotten depressed and then apathetic. Eventually she starts plotting to run away from home and hop a bus back to Minnesota.
But that’s all external stuff, commanding little screentime. What we see, mostly, is how it all plays out in Riley’s brain, where spheres of memory colored by the emotions attached to their formation are neatly stacked on shelves reminiscent of the Hall of Prophecies in Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix (only they’re vibrant and candy-colored instead of gloomy and foreboding). Joy, Sadness, Anger, Fear and Disgust take turns presiding over the instrument console that prompts Riley to take actions, and the downturn in the preteen’s social circumstances parallels the increasing meddling of Sadness in what was once primarily Joy’s domain.
Things go seriously awry when Joy tries to wrest some happy core memories away from Sadness, whose blue touch would taint them permanently, and both of them get sucked into a vacuum tube that strands them in the labyrinth of Riley’s long-term memory. With Anger, Fear and Disgust at the controls, the girl starts making worse and worse decisions, and her mental “islands of personality” begin to crumble one by one into an abyss of forgotten experiences. Joy and Sadness have to find their way back to Headquarters, enlisting the dubious help of Riley’s goofy, half-forgotten imaginary friend Bing Bong (Richard Kind).
Much of the middle of the movie follows the errant emotions through an obstacle course of humorous detours. Taking an ill-considered shortcut through Abstract Thought, they are transformed first into personages from Cubist paintings and then, in an hommage to Edwin Abbott’s classic book Flatland, into two-dimensional shapes. Apprehended by security guards after Bing Bong wreaks some havoc, they are locked into the scary Subconscious, “where they send all the troublemakers.” Its entry corridor is a not-so-enchanted broccoli forest (Disgust’s specialty), and its most terrifying occupant (naturally) a gigantic clown recollected from some preschool birthday party. In an effort to wake Riley up and get her Train of Thought back on track, Joy and Sadness visit the “Dream Productions” movie studio and try to manipulate her dream imagery, with chaotic results.
Like all of Pixar’s best work, there’s plenty of layering here to keep grownups’ minds occupied while the kids enjoy the cartoon. But you don’t need to be able to remember the difference in memory storage function between the amygdala and the hippocampus to derive a basic understanding of how the human mind works from watching Inside Out. And the narrative packs a true emotional punch: Adults and children alike are guaranteed to shed a tear when Riley’s imaginary friend has to sacrifice himself to propel Joy back into Headquarters.
Perhaps the most profound telling detail of this story is the respect with which the role of Sadness is treated. Joy may be more fun to hang around with, but it’s only through shared sorrow that people learn compassion and form truly deep interpersonal bonds, in which lies Riley’s salvation. Not since Docter’s previous Pixar masterpiece Up, with its heartbreaking opening montage, has an animated film carried so much emotional nuance. It’s accessible enough to entrance the very young and sophisticated enough to engage the irredeemable adult. Whether you’re 8 or 80, this movie will make you laugh, but it’ll also move you; I guarantee it. Pixar has hit one out of the park once again.
To read Frances Marion Platt’s previous movie reviews & other film-related pieces, visit our Almanac Weekly website at HudsonValleyAlmanacWeekly.com and click on the “film” tab.