Pixar has proven time and time again that they have an incredibly deep understanding of emotion. For years, their movies have not only captivated audiences by making us feel tremendous joy and excitement, but they’ve also proven time and time again that they can tenderly pull on our heartstrings and make us shed tears for characters whom we’ve only known for a matter of minutes. As such, it should be no surprise that director Pete Docter’s Inside Out -- a film that is literally all about emotions – is one of the most affecting works Pixar has produced yet, and absolutely one of their best titles.
Showing once again that Pixar refuses to speak down to the younger portions of its audience, the new film is a surprisingly complex look into the mind of an 11-year-old girl named Riley, who is going through some serious life changes, and beautifully captures what it’s like to endure that angst-y, troubled stage of adolescence. Craftily playing two linked parallel stories off each other – one following Riley in the “real” world, and the other an adventure of emotions going on inside her head – Inside Out is unquestionably the most narratively challenging movie that Pixar has made, but it’s handled in a unique and clever way that creates something meaningful, painfully relatable, and a tremendous amount of fun.
Inspired by Docter’s own experience watching his young daughter approach her teenage years and transforming into a different person than the one he knew, the baseline story of Inside Out follows the aforementioned Riley (voiced by Kaitlyn Dias) as her entire world is turned on its side, forced to move from her childhood home in Minnesota to San Francisco after her dad (Kyle MacLachlan) gets a new job. Understandably, this is a touch traumatic for the young protagonist, forced to leave her friends, sports teams and her life behind her, but it’s at the request of her mother (Diane Lane) for Riley to try and keep a brave face that causes things to get complicated emotionally.
A great coming-of-age film could be made from that material alone, but really, it’s just the touching base story for Inside Out’s real central plot, following the five main emotions – Joy (Amy Poehler), Sadness (Phyllis Smith), Anger (Lewis Black), Fear (Bill Hader) and Disgust (Mindy Kaling) – that have been running the show for Riley’s whole life, set up in a special control room in the girl’s mind from which they control her memories, actions and reactions. For 11 years, Joy has primarily run the show, turning Riley into a young, rambunctious goofball who finds her happiness in playing hockey and being with her friends and family. When the gang moves to San Francisco, however, Joy suddenly discovers that her job has become incredibly more complicated – and it doesn’t help that Sadness has suddenly begun a habit of transforming some memories from cheerful to gloomy.
This leads to a conflict between the two, with Joy unwilling to accept Sadness’ importance in Riley’s life. But the unfortunate result of this clash is that both of them accidentally get launched out of the control room and into long-term memory. Together the two of them must try and find a way back, while Anger, Fear and Disgust are left to try and navigate Riley through one of the most complicated times of her life.
If that sounds like a lot to take it (especially for a movie primarily made for children), you’re not entirely wrong. But a big part of the magic of Inside Out is how beautifully crafted its world-building is, and the way in which the story always comes back to universally understandable touchstones that keep things grounded. It’s a balancing act, as the movie actively tries to squeeze in as many artistic and inspired interpretations of the brain’s most fascinating inner workings as it can. Thanks to the relative simplicity of Riley’s main storyline, though, the film is really able to wow you with its inventiveness and weirdness inside of her mind. Through Joy and Sadness’ misadventure, the movie puts its own spin on how dreams are made, what happens to our imaginary friends, abstract thought, and much more, and it’s simply pleasurable to just see the ridiculous creative energy that is flowing through the movie’s veins.
Inside Out’s inventiveness – as well as the fantastic banter and chemistry between Amy Poehler, Phyllis Smith, Lewis Black, Bill Hader and Mindy Kaling) – are what deliver the entertaining side of the film’s perfection. Fair warning, however: you should all prepare to be emotionally shredded numerous times through the runtime. This is hardly new ground for Pixar, as fans will quickly point to the beginning of Up (also directed by Pete Docter) and the end of Toy Story 3 as intensely emotional moments. But that does nothing to undercut the impact of the studio’s latest, which earns every heart-wrenching moment it creates. The film’s opening moments alone will put tears in your eyes, while sequences deep in the film will make you wish you grabbed that pack of tissues from the bathroom cabinet. And in case you think that I might just be oversensitive, the sounds of sniffling that echoed around the theater during my screening beg to differ.
As though it wasn’t enough for Inside Out to be fascinating narratively and deeply emotional, it also happens to be truly beautiful, to boot. In creating such a heavily-detailed world that exists inside Riley mind, Docter and Pixar’s brilliant animators have fashioned something visually original, and the creativity fueling the script results in a bright, splashy world where memories are represented as glowing orbs, and emotions as colorful, fuzzy little beings. Each new aspect of the journey presents new odd and interesting concepts to interpret, and the audience is never left visually disappointed with what the animation has to deliver.
Inside Out has the exact same kind of old school Pixar magic that turned the company into the biggest modern name in animated feature films. It’s a perfect addition to the ever-growing legacy. It’s a phenomenal, touching and special piece of art, and fittingly a mind-blowing and emotional experience.