I am a bit late to the party, thanks to travel and other distractions, but I finally got to see the latest from Pixar Animation today. I shouldn’t have waited. ‘Inside Out’ is an exceptional piece of filmmaking – and I don’t just mean animated filmmaking. As it has so many times before, Pixar has created a movie that will appeal to adults and children alike; is both highly sophisticated and highly entertaining; and has slapstick for the juveniles in us and in the audience alongside innuendo and sharp commentary for the most thoughtful and erudite. And as in its predecessor ‘Up’, you will find yourself laughing hysterically and crying openly during the films 110 quick minutes. As I say: something for everyone.
‘Inside Out’ takes us literally inside the mind of a young girl, Riley. There we meet Riley’s five key emotions: Joy, Fear, Anger, Sadness and Disgust. These five, together with other denizens of Riley’s brain, work to lead the young girl through her daily life, struggling with each other to balance the good and the bad, the fun and the drudgery; and all the time building a base of ‘core memories’ and emotional infrastructure that become the foundation of Riley’s life of the mind. Of course, there must be a conflict to drive nearly two hours of animated action, and this comes when Joy and Sadness, the two dominant and competing emotions, are sucked into a vortex that takes them away from the headquarters of the brain, and leave Anger, Disgust and Fear in charge – an obvious recipe for disaster. The majority of the film bounces back and forth between the journey of Joy and Sadness back to headquarters, while Anger Disgust and Fear do their very best with a limited set of alternatives to hold down the fort.
And this is the genius of ‘Inside Out’ – providing a funny and whimsical travel adventure through the recesses of the brain that will entertain children if all ages; while engaging us in an analytical exercise to consider just how we would behave if only a subset of our emotional capacity was available to us. If you could not engage with Joy and Sadness in your life, rather just with Anger, Fear and Disgust, what would life be like? “Inside Out’ offers a glimpse that is both funny and heart wrenching. Along their journey ‘home’ Joy and Sadness meet up with any number of characters that we will recognize from inside our own heads – our childhood memories of imaginary friends, our dreams good and bad, and our experiences long past that have faded away into the ‘memory dump’. There is so much of each of us packed into this film that we can access it on multiple levels and in multiple ways.
Of course, this is a Pixar film, and so the animation, characterizations, music and writing are absolutely top notch. As with other Pixar films, you have to stay completely focused to catch all of the references and inside jokes (no pun intended!). For example, as Joy and Sadness travel through the brain to get back to ‘headquarters’, they pass by a dark and guarded place. “What is that?” asks Joy, the more spontaneous and less well read of the pair. “That’s the subconscious”, says Sadness, who has actually read the manuals on how the brain operates. “It’s where they keep the troublemakers’. If that one jumps over your head, perhaps you need a few sessions with a Freudian (as opposed to the pair’s visit to ‘Dream Studios’, which would require a Jungian).
As an animated film, ‘Inside Out’ depends to some extent on the voices of its characters, and all are uniformly excellent – some you will know (Amy Pohler as Joy and Lewis Black as Anger, for example) and some you will not (Phyllis Smith as Sadness and Richard Kind as Bing Bong, the imaginary friend). But this is not like ‘Toy Story’, where the characters need a recognizable voice to drive the character. Here we have something newly created, with writing so good that you almost don’t want to be thinking about a real person behind the character. Putting Meryl Streep or Angelina Jolie behind one of these emotions would ruin the whole thing. This is an ensemble work, not a star vehicle.
So round up the whole family for an evening at the movies that everyone can enjoy on one or more levels. I am sorry I was late to the party, but better late than never -- and I intend to return for a second helping from the buffet table!
P.S. One of the additional benefits of a Pixar film is that you get a short subject before the feature… a highly enjoyable throwback to the old days of Saturday movie going. Along with ‘Inside Out’ is a lovely short titled ‘Lava’. Based around a Hawaiian song about a lonely volcanic island seeking love and companionship, ‘Lava’ features some of the best of Pixar’s realistic animation. You’ll want to jet off to the South Pacific even before entering into the depths of the brain.