Inside Out (2015) / Animation-Comedy

MPAA Rated: PG for mild thematic elements and some action
Running Time: 94 min.

Cast (voices): Amy Poehler, Phyllis Smith, Bill Hader, Lewis Black, Kaitlyn Dias, Richard Kind, Mindy Kaling, Diane Lane, Kyle MacLachlan
Small role (voices): Paula Poundstone, Bobby Moynahan, Frank Oz, Flea, John Ratzenberger, Peter Sagal, Rashida Jones, Laraine Newman, Teresa Ganzel
Director: Pete Docter, Ronnie Del Darmen
Screenplay: Meg LeFauve, Josh Cooley, Pete Docter

Review published June 19, 2015

Many Pixar fans, while loyal through superfluous and underwhelming sequels, have been anxiously awaiting their favorite animation studio to go back to the kind of ingenious and original films that have taken family animation to areas none have gone before.  Inside Out shows that there is still a lot of fuel left in the tank, and given that Pete Docter is at the helm, the director who brought us Monsters Inc. and Up, we're in the capable hands of one of their elite.  It's not their best film, but after their last three good-but-not-great films in Cars 2, Brave, and Monsters University, it's a sigh of relief that they haven't succumbed to being just another Disney money-printing operation -- at least, not yet.

It's also one of those movies that can be enjoyed not just by kids, or families with kids.  Adults can go by themselves and be thoroughly entertained as well.  The reason is one of reductive complexity, which simplifies a very intricate and analytical subject --  emotions and memories -- and translates it into color-coded cartoon form, yet without becoming neither too abstract to follow nor too dumbed-down to be revelatory.  The entire film is one very imaginative metaphor for human psychology, especially in how all of these internal feelings must work in unison to make us feel whole, and how we even need some of the more negative emotions to steer us toward a more rewarding and fulfilled life. 

The basic premise of this film is that we're given the emotional inner workings of a young girl in Minnesota named Riley (Dias, The Shifting), through the personification of her feelings -- Joy (Poehler, They Came Together), Sadness (Smith, Bad Teacher), Fear (Hader, The Disappearance of Eleanor Rigby), Disgust (Kaling, Wreck-It Ralph), Anger (Black, Man of the Year) -- and how they try to coordinate to navigate her way through life in as safe and secure a way possible, looking out as if from the control tower of her mind's eye, through the many stages in life.  Now eleven years old, this is a particularly tricky stage in her development, just on the cusp of maturing into a teenager, when the simplicity and imagination of her young childhood no longer interest her, and she begins to deal with new emotions, hopes, fears, and struggles with identity.  The confusion is further exacerbated by career opportunity for her father (MacLachlan, Mao's Last Dancer) that results in the family uprooting from the only place Riley has ever known, and moving to San Francisco, where she has no friends, no creature comforts, none of her favorite activities, and especially no ice hockey.

As much as Joy tries to keep Riley content, her disappointing new home, the awkwardness of being a stranger in school, and the unfamiliar city around her leads the maturing girl to feel very out of sorts emotionally, giving way to many of her cherished memories turning from ones of happiness into ones of a cherished life sorely missed, as that part of her childhood seems to have been left behind forever.  Those feelings cause Sadness to begin to take control of the machine that controls Riley and her orb-like embodiment of memories, which leads Joy to try to take drastic action to curb the tendency of Sadness to affect the balance of things. However, in her desperation, both Joy and Sadness get inadvertently ousted from the command center into the crazy and mysterious nether regions of Riley's mind.  They encounter a series of obstacles in their long and arduous trek back, leaving Fear, Disgust, and Anger are the only emotions Riley can feel in this very delicate and confusing time in her life, while the happy memories of her youth begin to fade into oblivion.

The initial fear, one must imaging, from such an ambitious and somewhat sophisticated film about things that probably aren't readily understood by children much younger than Riley, is that Inside Out might be too smart for its own good, losing the broad appeal that has characterized the most lucrative of Pixar films like Finding Nemo and the Toy Story series, that play very well to a much younger audience.  Certainly, that lack of broad brushstrokes will mean that some audiences just won't find it as fun or as funny as they have these other projects, as this isn't a story that lends itself to just enjoying on its own terms without translation of metaphors into meaning throughout.  However, this also gives Inside Out a decidedly intellectual bent that, for those who are in tune with its unique wavelength, reaps great rewards for being interesting, smart, daring, and astute in a manner that most other animated fare on a wide-release scale are too timid to undertake.

Not that young kids won't like it because it is too heady, as the characterizations are as simple as can be without losing the resonant nature of the overall work.  Certainly, this is a movie that can be enjoyed for the basic interactions, both comedic and dramatic, of the various characters, who are all cute, amusing, affecting, and well designed.  I love that, despite Joy being the sole "positive" emotion, and in direct opposition in goals to Sadness, that they are set up a a team instead of as adversaries, and all of the emotions assist in trying to make Joy the predominant emotion in Riley's life.  That metaphor becomes especially important in its explanation of maturity, in which the shelter of one's childhood comes with the realization that one's life can't always be fun and games, and that eventually, we all have to learn with how to deal with balancing our emotions to achieve a state of contentment. 

It's not a coming-of-age story so much as the coming of coming of age, when we begin to realize that life is a little more complicated than we realized as playful children.  And it's about the sadness parents experience when seeing that silly, innocent child the love unconditionally grow into their next phase, never to return to that state -- that the makers of the film have dedicated Inside Out to their own children with the imploration that they never grow up, ever, should tell you where their hearts lie.  Docter claims his inspiration for the film came from seeing his own daughter go through some tumultuously emotional times, as well as his own reminiscences on his relocation from Minnesota to work for Pixar in Emeryville, near San Francisco, CA. 

Inside Out is a brilliantly witty and often bittersweet take on those key formative years in which a child starts his or her turn toward becoming a teenager, those all-important tween years where the things that kept them feeling happy and secure don't hold as much sway, leading to a shake-up of emotions that results in imbalance that many parents see in their children as they can sometimes become rebellious, despondent, and averse to the things that they used to be (Anger, Fear, and Disgust can sometimes dominate).  It's certainly clever and thematically rich, though not too much so that it loses most of its audience, and there are more than enough adorable, funny moments to make this a very worthwhile experience for young and old alike. Even through the sad parts, it's a Joy to behold -- a golden Memory Orb earned.

-- There is a lengthy additional sequence (perhaps the funniest of the movie) during the end credits. 

Qwipster's rating:

2015 Vince Leo