Movie Review: Inside Out

Pixar gets inside our heads and our hearts with the clever, inventive Inside Out.

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click to enlarge NOTHING MORE THAN FEELINGS: A moment of crisis for Sadness (blue), Anger (red), Fear (purple), Disgust (green), and Joy. - PIXAR
NOTHING MORE THAN FEELINGS: A moment of crisis for Sadness (blue), Anger (red), Fear (purple), Disgust (green), and Joy.

Inside Out
Rated PG. Directed by Pete Docter. Voices by Kaitlyn Dias, Amy Poehler, Bill Hader, Mindy Kaling, Lewis Black, Richard Kind and Phyllis Smith. Opening Fri., June 19.
Rating: 4.5 out of 5 stars.

With the release of Toy Story in 1995, Pixar Studios let the world know there was a new kid in town when it came to motion picture animation. With its computer-generated, brightly colored images and emotionally resonant storytelling, Pixar felt like a leap forward from what had been previously seen in theaters, particularly the product of feature-length cartoon behemoth Walt Disney. Over the next 20 years and 14 films, the fledgling studio continued to blaze a trail — so much so that in 2006, the Mouse House bought Pixar for an obscene amount of money.

Which could be, depending on how you look at it, either a good thing or a bad. Disney, for the most part, produces more family-friendly, warm and fuzzy fare, aimed primarily at the hearts and minds of younger girls and boys (and at their parents’ pocketbooks). Consider, for example, Frozen, arguably Disney’s best work in years, where you get two princesses for the price of one. Pixar, on the other hand, while still targeting children, seems only too aware that there are also parent types sitting in the audience, folks who could appreciate a healthy dose of adult humor. Pixar made movies for both children and adults, a challenging achievement even on a good day.

So the fear was that the parent studio would move away from inter-generational appeal and start skewing younger. That certainly seemed like the objective of their latest release, Inside Out, about what goes on in the mind of a pre-teen girl. But thankfully, that doesn’t seem to be the case. Instead, it is an inventive and often clever look at how all of us, no matter what age, deal with the conflicting emotions that rule our lives. When we first meet Riley, she is a happy 11-year-old (Joy, voiced by Amy Poehler, is the emotion in charge) living with her parents in the Midwest. A move to San Francisco, however, throws her well-balanced life into chaos, and Joy and the other emotions — Fear, Anger, Sadness and Disgust — struggle to regain the equilibrium that previously defined who Riley was.

And therein lies the fun of the film, because the inside of the human mind, as concocted by screenwriters Pete Docter (who also co-directed), Meg LeFauve and Josh Cooley, is a virtual rabbit’s hole of discovery around every corner — Alice in Wonderland for the 21st century, but without the trippy insanity. Happy places are like theme parks; memories are stored in a huge, spaceship-like hangar; and when Joy gets too far afield trying to undo the damage done by an over-tactile Sadness — she can’t help but keep touching things, and everything she touches turns blue — the two of them journey through Riley’s mind to get back to command central and make things right. Along the way, Joy is often physically pulling Sadness (voiced to great effect by Phyllis Smith) who says at one point that “crying helps me slow down and obsess over the weight of life’s problems.”

And then they encounter Bing Bong, Riley’s imaginary playmate from earlier in her life, and the emotional gravity really kicks in. Bing Bong, a delightful concoction of a character made from cotton candy and every animal Riley loved as a toddler — cat, elephant, dolphin — and given voice by the great clown of an actor Richard Kind, is still hopelessly devoted to his little girl even though he has been forgotten and relegated to the pile of memories that are no longer used. He throws himself in with Joy and Sadness to help, and serves, finally, as a reminder that joy and sadness are often what the most important memories are made of.

Not that the film is sentimental — far from it. Instead, it manages to touch on the seriousness with the lightest of touches, helping us to understand without hitting us over the head. And often it’s out-and-out funny. At one point, in tribute to San Francisco (and the large gay population therein), Riley and her mother refer to the animals they used to see in the wild, and one of them says, “I saw a really hairy guy — he looked like a bear.” Moments like that let me know Pixar is alive and well, thank you very much, even if they are under the umbrella of Disney. The kid is still in the picture — and even though it’s been 20 years, trails are still being blazed for both the adults and the children in the audience. And the world of animation is all the better for it. 

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