By Matthew McKibben | June 25, 2015
Directors: Pete Docter, Ronaldo Del Carmen
Writers: Pete Docter (story and screenplay), Ronaldo Del Carmen (story), Meg LeFauve (screenplay), and Josh Cooley (screenplay)
Starring: Amy Poehler, Phyllis Smith, Richard Kind, Bill Hader, Mindy Kaling, Lewis Black, Kaitlyn Dias, Diane Lane, Kyle MacLachlan
Pixar’s run of classic films was so great and impactful on popular culture, that it almost became too easy to take the studio’s movies for granted. When you follow the game changing Toy Story with movies like Toy Story 2, Monsters Inc., Finding Nemo, The Incredibles, Cars, Ratatouille, WALL-E, Up, and then Toy Story 3, you could almost fall into the trap of thinking that the studio could do no wrong and producing classic — in some cases perfect — films was just something that was going to regularly happen as long as the creative brain trust of Brad Bird, John Lasseter, Pete Docter, and Andrew Stanton remained intact. Then came Cars 2 (awful), Brave (meh!), and Monsters University (fun, but a little below standard) and I think everyone was starting to wonder if Pixar still had it. Or, perhaps we should wonder if they still had “It!” — “It!” being that magically deft touch, capable of producing movies appealing to both adults and children alike, while also hitting your soul in its solar-plexus. On top of everything else, with Disney Animation Studios producing Tangled, Wreck It Ralph, Big Hero 6, and Frozen, and with DreamWorks Animation doing great work with their Kung Fu Panda and How to Train Your Dragon movies, it was becoming easy to kick Pixar down the road as yesterday’s news.
Then comes a movie like Inside Out and you’re instantly reminded, yes, Pixar is not only still a player in the animation game, they’re still alone at the top of the mountain. If putting my money down for Cars 2 and Brave means that we get to have more movies like Inside Out, then I am 100% fine with that. You’re making a Finding Nemo sequel? Take my money, as long as we get more movies on par with Inside Out. As a self-avowed Pixar fanboy, comparing Pixar movies to one another is like a pastime for me. For my money, Inside Out is their best movie. It’s their smartest, most visually inventive, funniest, and most conceptually perfect movie that they’ve done yet.
Movies like Toy Story 2, Up, WALL-E, and The Incredibles all have a centralized theme through which all of the action is funneled; in Inside Out, the theme of the movie and the action itself are one in the same thing. The movie is really complex but the plot is relatively simple. A young girl named Riley (Kaitlyn Dias) and her parents (Diane Lane, Kyle MacLachlan) relocate from their Midwestern home to a new home in San Francisco. How Riley emotionally deals with the loss of friends, excitement of the move, anxiety of a new school, etc. are all dependent and tethered to the emotions in her head — Joy (Amy Poehler), Disgust (Mindy Kaling), Fear (Bill Hader), Sadness (Phyllis Smith), and Anger (Lewis Black). Each emotion has a turn at the control panel (no unlike the control panel on the Starship Enterprise), depending on the situation Riley finds herself in. Your parents want you to eat your broccoli, Disgust takes a turn at the panel. Your dad gets mad because you didn’t eat said broccoli? Move over, because it’s Anger’s turn at the wheel.
Plot A is the easy part to explain; Plot B, on the other hand, completely immerses you into Riley’s subconscious, psyche, id, brain, etc., as she emotionally deals with these complex situations. As Riley experiences life, she produces memories, conceptualized in the movie as glowing orbs. Real, hard hitting memories become orbs that are stored as “Core Memories.” The container that stores the core memories is pretty small, implying that one only gets a set amount of “core memories.” Memories that don’t have as much weight are sent off to “Long Term Memory,” like a never-ending Costco. Being as she’s only 11 years old, Joy has more or less been running Riley’s controls, so most of the orbs produced carry her yellowish hue. But when Sadness starts accidentally, or perhaps instinctually, touching the Yellow orbs, the orbs take on her blue color, and the memory associated with that orb shifts from a happy one to a sad one. After a mishap in which an embarrassed Riley produces a sad core memory (her first non-Joy core memory), Joy and Sadness end up lost in the inner workings of Riley’s brain, leaving Disgust, Fear, and Anger at the control deck.
Joy and Sadness’s mission is to get back to the control deck, while Disgust, Anger, and Fear try to keep the ship afloat. Pixar tackles Riley’s emotions and psychology with a high level of respect and seriousness, which I found both refreshing and artistically brave. There is no true villain in Inside Out. There’s a ticking clock of events that all the characters, both internally and externally, are forced to work against, but none of the emotions are played as “the bad guy.” They all want what is best for Riley, even though they all have their own unique ways of operating within her mind.
As much as the movie is about the inner turmoil that happens when a family is uprooted in a cross-country move, Inside Out is also about the process of growing up, and how it’s healthy for different emotions to shade memories, even when the genesis of those memories was created under a different emotion. In lesser hands, sadness would have been the villain of the movie, instead of its hero. Inside Out very maturely and bravely put each emotion on the same footing; showing that sometimes the path to happiness and joy is paved via sadness or the other emotions.
It’s pretty heady stuff for a “kid’s movie,” though I somewhat dispute the notion that this is a kid’s movie at all. From the really colorfully bright visuals to the humor to the basic strands of the story, there’s a lot here for kids to like. Most kids will be able to relate to Riley and her internal/external struggle. There were numerous hearty laughs throughout the movie, especially scenes showing how other people’s inner emotions worked with one another; there are colorful Muppet-like characters, giving the movie more than its fair share of fun moments for the kiddos.
But make no mistake, this is one heavy movie. As a parent, I found some of the psychological themes it attempts to address to be really hard hitting and soul wrenching. Imagine a movie combining the emotional impact of the first 10 minutes of Up, the emotional and existential dread (and uplift) of the last 10 minutes of Toy Story 3, and you’ll have an idea of the kind of movie Inside Out is at its core level; while the deeper, more experimental aspects of the movie borrows from The Wizard of Oz, Being John Malkovich, Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind and even a touch of Inception.
A movie combining all of those elements should be a total disaster, instead of the total success that it is. The fact that it works at all speaks to Pete Docter and Ronaldo Del Carmen’s directorial skills, along with the brain trust of everyone at Pixar who worked on this movie. I scratch my head now, trying to think of any faults I found in this movie. If forced to nitpick, I could find issue with the movie’s length or the movie’s heaviness, but I can’t think of what you could take out of this movie and have it still work cohesively. I’ve read criticism where people note that the dream sequence scenes were superfluous to the story, but I found them to be integral to the advancement of the story. Every action that happens on this movie, from the piquing of Riley’s subconscious to what happens when Anger takes control of the panel fuels both the internal and external turmoil going on in Riley’s life. Removing anything would lessen the momentum the movie finds itself on, as it everything comes to a head (no pun intended).
The voice talent is simply superb. With the exception of Amy Poehler’s Joy and Lewis Black’s Anger, I don’t think any of the other cast members are obvious choices. Choosing the best voices instead going with obvious choices is a Pixar staple and it serves the movie well here. Michael Giacchino’s score work is fantastic, too, rivaling the best stuff he did as the principle composer for Lost. There’s no one better at musically nudging its way into your skull and tweaking your emotions than Giacchino.
In a summer movie season that’s already produced one out-and-out classic (Mad Max: Fury Road), we now have a second with Inside Out. The movie functions at a high level from the opening frame to the last. It tugged on my heartstrings and gave me a new way to conceptualize my own emotions and the emotions of those around me, my kids in particular. So, on that level, I couldn’t be more grateful that this movie exists. Inside Out has stuck with me days after seeing it, sometimes to the point where I get emotional just thinking about specific scenes. Because of its heaviness and its ability to kind of destroy me for a few hours, it won’t be a movie I watch often, similarly to my all time favorite movie, E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial, which I only watch every so often. I’ll probably watch Inside Out once every couple of years and just let the experience wash over me. There will be other Pixar movies that I watch more frequently than this one, but on the pantheon of great Pixar movies, I have this one first and everyone else vying for second.