“What do we do? What do we do?! What do we do?!?!”
“We could try crying until we can’t breathe!”
“Or we could pull out that one curse word we know! It’s a doozy!”
Over the course of its nearly unprecedented winning streak (for family features, only the early Snow White/Bambi/Fantasia days of Disney are probably the least bit comparable), the Pixar animation studio has shown a thorough and innate understanding of the process and pitfalls of growing up, not to mention a remarkable facility with the sorts of stories, and themes, and details, and moments, that tend to subconsciously bind children of basically any age to their parents, and vice versa, while also reinforcing existing bonds, whether said moments should happen in life or in a packed theater. As a childless, more-or-less confirmed bachelor, I am, one might imagine, not the veteran of countless kids’ movies, inside the theater or out, though I have long been an unvarnished Pixar enthusiast. Unlike its parent, The Walt Disney Company, Pixar has always strived, with an edifying success level, to create films that are intended to be enjoyed by the whole family, and not just because it makes for good ad copy. Multi-directional, all-encompassing appeal is a perilously thin line to walk, but can also be an incredibly noble calling, and up until Pixar’s recent doldrums, marked mostly by superfluous sequels and radio silence, I was grateful just to be included in the crowd. I read the advance press for Inside Out hopefully, imagining I might again have occasion to see something worthy of the standards set by Ratatouille, or Wall-E, or Finding Nemo, or Up. My opening weekend showing fairly teemed with not just families but young couples, and, dotting the landscape here and there, yes, lone viewers like me. The film we saw was worthy and more. The adults laughed regularly, dabbed at their eyes, and exchanged knowing looks. The kids giggled occasionally but were held otherwise in rapt, silent, effortless attention. Inside Out might not be the most interesting or evocative a title for a movie concerned with no less than the inner workings of a child’s developing mind, but it is a triumph of imagination on almost every other level. I’ll wager that no one felt out of place.
Inside Out features two protagonists, one a textbook example of the form and the other something unexpected. Eleven-year-old Riley is a normal enough girl, the goofy, understated, hockey-loving daughter of a warm but frazzled Minnesota couple currently in the process of uprooting from the only home she’s ever known and moving cross country to the alien shores of San Francisco. Director Pete Docter, a charter member of the Pixar brain trust who previously helmed Monsters, Inc. and Up, resists the temptation to make Riley stand out in any appreciable way visually. Her character design – plain and a little gangly but pleasingly familiar overall – is par for Pixar’s course, as the company so often focuses on worlds and lives unfolding either in the margins or under a microscope that its human characters have a tendency to bleed together. Riley’s hopes, fears, and worries are fairly universal. She has enough on her mind simply adjusting to a new house in a new city, and a new school with potential new friends, at precisely the moment that a lifetime of lingering memories of skating on a frozen pond and skipping home with her bestie are at their most powerful and pervasive. Joy (a buoyant, load-carrying, invaluable Amy Poehler) isn’t Riley’s friend in any conventional sense, and, indeed, isn’t even human. Instead, she is the literal personification of joy, an effervescent, golden-glowing dervish of enthusiasm and one of five distinct aspects of Riley’s personality (with Sadness, Anger, Fear, and Disgust) that work together imperfectly to help make her who she is. The film is flatly impossible without Poehler, who convinced Docter she would be able to negotiate potential interpretive pitfalls that other actors couldn’t. The choice to cast Poehler as Joy is as sublime as her ebullient performance. She takes the tenacious, proactive, can-do energy that defined her classic turn as Parks & Recreation’s Leslie Knope and further refines it into 210-proof rocket fuel.
I always enjoy when films reinterpret elusive or unknowable concepts into flight of fancy creative alternatives that make them more relatable.* Pixar is an established master at this, having already delved deep into the greater purpose of nightmares (Monsters, Inc.), and provided a somber window through which Earth might be regarded after decades of pollution and human neglect have made it uninhabitable (Wall-E), not to mention, of course, positing all those thriving shadow societies populated by underused children’s toys, aquarium fish, neurotic insects, and, for some reason, driverless cars. On this level, Inside Out is Pixar’s most impressive achievement yet. It turns out that our unassuming little Riley is actually pretty big business on a brain physiology level, and Inside Out transmogrifies her interior headspace into a combination booming industrial factory, impossibly vast National Archives, and day-glo wonderland. The five personality aspects, helpfully color-coded (blue for Sadness, green for Disgust, and so on) and voiced (or, perhaps, embodied in the case of Lewis Black’s Anger, who is introduced as being, “very concerned with what’s fair”) by ace acting talent, live together like roommates on a reality TV show – except, you know, fun and good-natured and entertaining – and spend their workdays at “headquarters” (get it?) subtly jockeying for position and influence over Riley’s mood while den mother Joy seeks to keep her charge as consistently and unassailably happy as possible. To her chagrin, this prospect proves increasingly complicated as Riley ages, though Joy possesses the kind of unquenchable attitude that will rise to any challenge. Her colleague Sadness (The Office’s Phyllis Smith, doing excellently modulated work in counterpoint to Poehler’s manic positivity) is an unwitting but persistent fly in Joy’s ointment, forever touching the wrong memory and imbuing it with strains of unwanted melancholy. The two are most protective and proprietary over Riley’s so-called “core memories”, the foundational memories (of family, hockey, goofing off) that comprise so much of what makes her tick. When a mishap causes the core memories to be sucked through a pneumatic tube along with Joy and Sadness and deposited into the vast hinterlands outside of headquarters, it’s up to the two emotions to get them back in place before Riley is irrevocably changed by their absence and, for all intents and purposes, forgets how to feel.
*Though far less fanciful, Albert Brooks’ introduction of “Judgment City” as a drab but pleasant suburban mall culture stand-in for the (literal) trials of the afterlife in 1991’s “Defending Your Life” springs to mind, as do any number of moments from “Monty Python’s The Meaning of Life”, such as when a deceptively existential waiter spontaneously leads the cameraman on an exhausting walk from his downtown bistro to a French hillside overlooking the cabin in which he was born and, unsolicited, begins a wistful, heartfelt monologue only to storm off when it gets no audience response. Michael Palin’s climactic summary reduction of the Meaning Of Life (effectively undercutting the previous 100 minutes of sketches) to a sarcastic plea to, “Be nice to everyone, get a walk in, don’t eat fat, read a good book every now and then, and try to live together in peace and harmony with people of all countries and creeds” is pretty awesome as well.
Leaving aside pesky matters like its anatomical inaccuracy, this is a perfectly delightful way to interpret the brain. It appeals to the latent daydreamer in us all, and also not a little to the ego. Who among us wouldn’t secretly enjoy the idea that a dedicated and highly diversified team of engineers, administrators, custodians, and upper level talent toiled each and every day to the singular and incredibly important end of making you you? Docter has stated that the germ of Inside Out’s concept came to him gradually, as he would periodically observe his own growing daughter and wonder what was going on inside her head. As conceits go, it is both deceptively simple and overflowing with possibilities, possibilities that are brilliantly realized on screen. In this world, Riley’s dreams are staged and filmed anew every night at a sprawling movie studio where the resident diva is a persnickety rainbow unicorn (Joy, passing by, is star-struck). Here, Abstract Thought is interpreted into something of a virtual reality gauntlet, a “short cut” through which intrepid travelers must escape before they are rendered into cubist shapes, or less, and lost forever. Imagination Land is a natural highlight, with its puzzle pattern streets and blocks of houses made alternately of clouds and cards. Disturbers of the peace are sent to the Subconscious**, a sort of minimum-security prison housing both Riley’s latent fear of clowns and, for a time, her beloved but demoted imaginary friend BingBong, a hybrid elephant/cat/dolphin who is made largely out of cotton candy and cries wrapped candies instead of tears. As Joy and Sadness navigate the forbidding, and, robbed of Riley’s core memories, rapidly deteriorating but still fantastical landscape, they grow more dependent on and understanding of one another. Meanwhile, back at headquarters, Anger, Fear, and Disgust try frantically to help Riley cope, and take fun but inept turns as the alpha behind the command console. It’s a classic race against time scenario, granted extra resonance by a fateful 11th hour decision and by the narrow behavioral boxes into which all the aspects naturally fit, which makes seeing them struggling to adapt and improvise in the face of approaching disaster all the more affecting.
**Old school Muppet fans will get a kick out of the Subconscious’ overworked security guards, voiced by masters Dave Goelz (The Great Gonzo) and Frank Oz (Miss Piggy, Yoda), respectively.
We’re later afforded brief but telling glimpses into the respective headquarters of Riley’s parents***, which are laid out, amusingly, more like a tribunal or a board of directors meeting, with the same cadre of color-coded emotions, albeit a bit more uniform in appearance than Riley’s wacky brood, sitting in a semi-circle and debating new issues and stimuli with varying degrees of rationality. Here, relatively, chaos does not reign. While Joy is the unquestioned leader and driving force of Riley’s brain trust, it seems Sadness is the chairperson of her mother’s board, and Anger her father’s. Despite Joy’s protestations, many of which spring reflexively from her own dearth of experience (she and Riley are, after all, the same age), the movie makes the point that not only are other emotions useful, in a way they’re absolutely vital. They add color and complexity to the straightforward, and, when in concert together, tend to result, for good or bad, in the only memories truly worth keeping. Inside Out doesn’t bludgeon the audience with its message because it doesn’t have to. Its characterization and narrative momentum are simply too strong, involving, and fun to be denied, whether inside or out. What I love is how clearly not just Joy but all the emotions are invested in Riley’s wellbeing. They are merely governed, or at least constricted, by their fundamental natures, which, when confronted with conflict or disappointment, inevitably send, say, Disgust off on an evasive or dismissive path, or cause Fear to freak out and run in thirty directions simultaneously, or turn Anger into a literal flamethrower with surprising practical uses. The film also wisely portrays the emotions growing and learning along with Riley, competent enough from day one to do their jobs and to seek logical outcomes but also inexperienced, strangely scatterbrained, relatively unimaginative (with the exception of Joy, whose relentless positivity, at least as a leadership philosophy, eventually turns into something of a double-edged sword), and, of course, single-minded to a fault.
***And, in a hilarious end credits montage, also a neighborhood dog, a neighborhood cat, and the cute boy Riley notices at the hockey rink, among others. As with the rest of the movie, well-engineered and perfectly sculpted individual character beats add up to a whole greater than its component parts. Don’t shuttle your kid(s) straight out the door, is what I’m basically saying.
I opened this review talking, in part, about Pixar’s otherworldy historical facility with the little things – moments, quirks, details – the aggregate of which so often results in something classic. Inside Out is the story of two anthropomorphic emotions seeking to protect their benefactor by setting off across a forbidding, um, mindscape on a perilous, time-sensitive journey home. It could just as easily have been a puppy and a kitten, or a couple of kids, a cop and a crook, or any other mismatched pair of somethings you could imagine. It certainly has been before, ad nauseum. What could possibly be the difference here except for what Inside Out offers above all those, and in abundance, which is thought and care, boundless applied imagination, hard work, and authorial affection, and an insistence on the little things? I’m so often amused by film trailers that try desperately to manufacture a hook for substandard product by saying something along the lines of, “From the studio (or producers, or, ahem, minds) that brought you (e.g.) Free Birds and The Nut Job comes…” Yes, hello! Do I care, and, if so, remind me why, exactly? You’re not incubators. You’re not auteurs. You’re not Scorsese, or Tarantino, or Spielberg. You’re studios, soulless corporate hacks, or, better yet, entire conglomerates of them! Part of the fun of not being a parent, I would imagine, is the rarity with which you’ll ever be conned or coerced into seeing a movie due to the sheer willpower of someone who is a one-third scale replica of your most vital statistics and qualities, not the least of which, remember, is good judgment. Who among movie studios has the cache to rise above the fray and actually resemble such a patently stupid remark? Marvel, I’ll allow, and, most definitely, Pixar, and unless you want to venture far into the indies, that’s probably the end of the list. You don’t make such a list by accident. Inside Out is a heart-tugging, imagination-stoking marvel, a sterling, soaring, grin-plastering reminder of all the wonderful qualities that made Pixar so dependable, and indispensable, for so long, and so missed on those rare occasions when it wasn’t.
“Inside Out” (2015) 4/4 stars