Terrifically sad, riotously beautiful, wondrously alive, and potentially therapeutic, Inside Out is a bright comedy about dark feelings; an intriguing reaffirmation of Pixar’s singular talents; and a smart, optimistic adventure aimed at the child inside all of us. Audacious in its premise, Freudian in its subject, mature in its manner, and immense in its ambition, it’s a sweet, inventive, special film.
Riley (Kaitlyn Dias), an 11-year-old girl who loves hockey, friends, and goofing off, is uprooted from her Midwest life in Minnesota when her father starts a new job in San Francisco. Riley’s everyday decisions are guided by five primary emotions – Joy (Amy Poehler), Sadness (Phyllis Smith), Fear (Bill Hader), Anger (Lewis Black), and Disgust (Mindy Kaling) – that compete and collaborate in Headquarters. When Joy and Sadness are inadvertently swept into the hallways and storage rooms of Riley’s mind, she finds herself struggling to adjust to the changes.
Pixar has always stood tall as the second of two animation giants after Studio Ghibli, a creative center crammed with classics going back three decades (Grave of the Fireflies, Spirited Away). By the end of the brisk 94-minute running time, it’s more than clear that Inside Out is a spectacular return to form for the studio after a string of underwhelming misfires: it’s better than Brave, and far better than Cars 2 and Monsters University. It is a welcome reminder that Pixar established its cutting-edge reputation on cutting-edge animation, something that, prior to Inside Out, seemed to be more historical than current.
The voice casting is inspired. The main quintet performs valiantly, although Kaling is left with the least interesting role and almost nothing to do. (It’s worth noting that the film unites several Saturday Night Live veterans and multiple actors that originally filled the cast of the US version of The Office, alongside Steve Carell’s Michael Scott.) The supporting voice work is similarly delightful: Richard Kind (A Serious Man), Kyle MacLachlan (Blue Velvet), and Rashida Jones (The Social Network) are MVP standouts.
Director Pete Docter is a long-standing member of the Pixar team, having previously contributed the story for Toy Story, Toy Story 2, and WALL-E, and directed Monsters, Inc. and Up. Co-directed by Ronnie del Carmen, Inside Out is stupendous animation: the dreamscape inside Riley’s head is brought gloriously to life à la The Wizard of Oz: colours explode off the screen, balls of light whirr and collide, and the Train of Thought, Memory Dump, Dream Productions, and Imagination Land are coaxed into full expression. To use one of my colleague’s apt descriptions, a great Pixar film is like a visit to “a laboratory crossed with a rainbow.”
Nearly hallucinogenic in its visuals and utterly heartfelt in its emotion, Inside Out digs deep and lays bare its many complex themes, including the nature of memory and the necessity of melancholy. Likely grounded in at least some scientific research, it doesn’t shy away from conceptual backdrop: core memories, personality islands, imaginary friends, and the subconscious are seamlessly integrated into Riley’s mental playground. The notoriously abstract is made gleefully real.
There are scenes that extend beyond the grasp of its target audience: when Joy stumbles into the Realm of Abstract Thought, she and her traveling companions are collapsed to 2-D and then into shapes and lines before being remade on the other side. Some of the best moments occur in a barrage, minutes before the end credits: we dive into the minds of a dog, a cat, a preteen male (alarms blaring as he interacts with Riley), and the heavy eye-shadowed Cool Girl.
Inside Out isn’t a masterpiece, nor Pixar’s best-ever piece of animation: those descriptions still belong solely to the grand sin-and-forgiveness parables surrounding Woody/Buzz, Wall-E/Eve, and Carl/Ellie. It’s perhaps inevitable that a film set inside a girl’s head would feel more constricted than the sheer breakthrough of the first, the globetrotting of the third, and the eco-space romance of the second. There’s a bit of middle-act mania, as well as inevitable simplification that can feel reductive in hindsight: the emotions are lodged in the brain, not the heart, and there’s no sign of a thoughtful Reason, a dry Boredom, a bristling Envy, or a lecherous Lust (perhaps more suitable for a sequel).
But we should not fault these marvellous minds for failing to live up to their own high standard. We can embrace Inside Out for exactly what it is: a funny, endearing, lovingly constructed, if not entirely narratively convincing, milestone from a studio leading the charge in Velveteen Rabbit boundary breaking and explorations of quiet feminism. Welcome back, Pixar. Please don’t go away again for a long, long time.