Exploring the mind of an 11-year old girl through animation sounds admittedly thin on premise and flimsy in its potential execution. Sure enough, Pixar’s 15th film is perhaps their most brilliant creation to date, thanks in large part to director Pete Docter’s personal touch in his exploration of his daughter’s loss of childhood wonder as she traveled through puberty. Told in the mind of its protagonist, Riley, the film focuses on her five key emotions: Joy (voiced by Amy Poehler), Sadness (The Office‘s Phyllis Smith), Fear (Bill Hader), Anger (Lewis Black), and Disgust (Mindy Kaling). The idea is a sheer work of genius, which cannot be stated enough, and its execution is flawless and brilliantly rendered as it always connects the audience to the emotional power of the story. It’s also a universally appealing narrative, telling of mood swings and deeply rooted in psychology that probably allows parents and adults to connect far more than children. Regardless, one thing is certain: it’s another Pixar masterpiece that reaffirms the company’s relentlessly brilliant minds never left.
The story centers on Riley (voiced by Kaitlyn Dias), a young hockey-loving girl that gets uprooted from her Midwest life in Minnesota to move to San Francisco for her father’s new job. While that is the foundation of the story, and shows the real-life actions that her emotions create, the majority of the film takes place inside Riley’s mind. The five emotions inhabit Headquarters, which stores Riley’s core memories that create her personality while also sending off memories at the end of the day to the long-term bank. Joy always seems to be at ends with Sadness regarding the best course of action for Riley, particularly as Sadness turns a core memory into a sad thought for Riley. All of Riley’s core memories were joyous, as they should be for a child, but this acts as a catalyst for Riley’s mental instability as she enters a new school, loses her main friends, and loses a grip on her new life. In a devastating argument, Joy and Sadness get moved out of Headquarters, leaving Fear, Anger, and Disgust to run the show. This spurs a movement in Riley’s mind that forces her to reconsider what she enjoys and who she ultimately is.
Inside Out is often more funny than most of Pixar’s entries, moving at a rapid-fire pace as one would expect considering its setting is an 11-year old’s head. The voice casting is fundamentally great all-around, with Poehler taking a brunt of the work and making Joy both vocally energetic and emotionally subtle when needed. She’s always been a talented comedian, but her voice work is impressive. The biggest surprise is Smith, who was known for playing a supporting role on NBC’s The Office, but here she’s arguably the most important role of all: Sadness. While that sounds like a depressing character (well, duh), it’s actually the fundamental truth lying within Riley’s head. Accepting sadness and melancholic emotions as a part of life become the groundwork for adult emotion as it often carries over everyday moments, but it can also be a strength when grasped and understood by one’s self. That’s an inherently adult concept within a children’s film, which may explain why a lot of scenes were surprisingly quiet in the theater. Kids were probably gripped by the visual splendor of the film but also a little arrested by the heavy moments in the final half hour.
For adults, that final act is an absolute shower of emotions. It washes over and pretty much drowns the audience in its truths. Perhaps the most important component of the film is that the emotions and other characters within Riley’s mind, including the lovable imaginary friend Bing Bong (Richard Kind), are all given personalities beyond their traditionally associated traits. Sadness is far more than doom and gloom, Joy is bigger than her simple and unwavering optimism, and Fear does more than just calculate the social anxieties and dangers that Riley may face. The story and screenplay are attributed to five different people, and this is the rare case where it feels like all of their voices have coalesced into a singular vision. The maturation of a child into a young adult on screen is unparalleled for an animated film, and Pixar’s most humanly grounded story to date. It’s also one of their funniest and most exciting films, and features one of Disney’s simplest short films preceding the feature in Lava. Overall, the experience of seeing Inside Out speaks emphatically to the emotions of childhood and the growth of the human psyche over time. What an extraordinary piece of filmmaking.
Grade: ★★★★★ (out of 5)