INSIDE OUT Review: Emotional Rescue
Only three animated films have made me cry (as an adult). The first was Isao Takahata’s Grave of the Fireflies, a film from 1988 that I didn’t see until a home screening around 2001. The other two were Pixar films I caught in the theater: Pete Docter‘s Up (2009) and Lee Unkrich‘s Toy Story 3 (2010).
Inside Out, as directed and co-written by Docter, produced by Pixar, and loaded with emotions, has the potential of earning the four-spot alongside those other tear-summoning pictures.
Eleven-year-old Riley (voiced by Kaitlyn Dias) is a girl who has it all – great parents, a terrific best friend, and all the hockey she can play. She has led a charmed life, and for the most part it has been a happy life thanks to Joy.
Joy (voiced by Amy Poehler), is Riley’s primary emotion. She is part of a group of five, along with Sadness, Fear, Anger, and Disgust (voiced by Phyllis Smith, Bill Hader, Lewis Black, and Mindy Kaling, respectively), but those others know that Joy is the Alpha Emotion.
When Riley’s parents (voiced by Diane Lane and Kyle MacLachlen) move the family from Minnesota to San Francisco for dad’s business venture, Sadness tries to take over, but Joy refuses to allow it, wanting to maintain the perpetual happy. Instead, chaos (not a character) ensues and Joy and Sadness find themselves unintentionally whisked away from Headquarters and lost in the cavernous recesses of Riley’s longterm memory. On the outside, Riley begins to feel the effects of her emotions slipping away as her charmed life withers. Joy and Sadness must find their way back to Headquarters or risk losing Riley forever.
Inside Out is a tale of two films – one that takes place inside the mind of an 11-year-old girl, and another that takes place in the world that girl inhabits.
The film that takes place inside Riley’s mind is a dense, rich work, and like other Pixar films before it, this one offers a grand – but never overbearing – sense of nostalgia. (It’s a terrific companion to Toy Story, really, in that Pixar’s first film is about nostalgia tied to the trappings of youth, while this is tied to the feelings of youth.)
Docter and his co-writers Ronaldo Del Carmen (story), Meg LeFauve (screenplay), and Josh Cooley (screenplay) begin by constructing an amazing world inside Riley’s head, using as their foundation five “core memories” from Riley’s life. Those five memories are the basis of five “islands” that are the essence of Riley’s personality: Family Island, Friendship Island, Goofball Island, Hockey Island, and Honesty Island. The conflict comes when the Joy/Sadness confrontation causes the core memories to be inadvertently relocated to longterm; Joy and Sadness need to return them to their proper place in Riley’s mind to make everything right.
The filmmakers then supersaturate the mind around these islands with every conceivable childhood memory, and the glory of how they do it is a wonderful blend of moments that are specific enough to define Riley yet generic enough that they could define each of us as well. Fears of basement stairs and birthday clowns are stored alongside epic peewee league highlights and imaginary boyfriends. (An imaginary boyfriend has one of the smartest jokes in the film, too.)
The islands aren’t the only “places” in Riley’s mind, either. Also visited by Joy and Sadness are the child’s Abstract Thoughts (one of Pixar’s smartest scenes in their history), Dream Productions (built like a movie studio, it’s where her dreams are made), and of course her subconscious, where some scary things are stored. Joy and Sadness, with help from an imaginary friend from Riley’s very young days – Bing Bong (voiced by Richard Kind) – travel to these places and around Riley’s mind on the child’s … wait for it … Train of Thought.
Yes, it’s all THAT clever. And like other Pixar films before this one, it isn’t just that they get it right, it’s how right they get it.
The film that takes place in the real world, the world outside Riley’s mind, and particularly how that world connects to Riley’s psyche, is where the story struggles. The problem is a cause-and-effect disconnect between the two worlds.
The threat that Joy and Sadness face is the collapse of the islands, which signifies not only the loss of those memories to Riley’s “memory dump” (yet another clever conceit), but the loss of those things that make Riley who she is. It makes for a compelling adventure inside Riley’s head, but outside, Riley behaves the way any preteen would behave when uprooted from the only home she’s known and taken away from her friends. She’s sullen and withdrawn one moment, sassy and combative the next.
The suggestion is that without the emotions of Joy and Sadness, Riley is unable to properly cope with her situation, but her behavior seems relatively normal given that situation and its newness. So, is Riley out of sorts because of the peril going on inside her head or because of the tumult going on outside? The filmmakers want to have it both ways but the two worlds don’t quite mesh, and the superficiality of the external undermines the sincerity of the internal.
The filmmakers are also guilty of trying too hard to summon the audience’s tears. An early moment of memories being lost is genuine and incredibly impactful, but later attempts feel contrived, with one moment in the film coming off as downright mawkish.
Still, there is a lesson to be learned here, one that makes a great talking point for kids: not only can Joy and Sadness coexist, all emotions, when properly balanced, make us who we are. It’s okay to feel one emotion heavily at any given point in time, but everyone should feel all of the emotions all of the time.
The animation is top-notch, of course, and the cast is terrific. Amy Poehler summons her über-Leslie Knope to great affect and Phyllis Smith is the foundation the film needs. Lewis Black, though, is the secret weapon. He is perfectly cast as Anger, and his voice and performance are so spot-on, he joins the likes of Tom Hanks-as-Woody and Tim Allen-as-Buzz in terms of an actor forever being the only ones who should portray their characters in Pixar history.
As a father of two girls who were once 11 years old (five years apart, thankfully), I speak from experience when I say delving into the mind of a pre-teen is no easy task. While the execution might not be perfect (and while it didn’t make me cry), Pixar gets so much right with Inside Out, it will forever be a solid entry in their canon and a film worth revisiting at home.