It sounds a bit like an oxymoron, but Inside Out, Pixar Animation Studio’s fifteenth feature film, sounded like the most reassuring and comforting risk ever. Sure, making a film about the anthropomorphized emotions that live inside a preteen’s head sounds completely bonkers, but it’s exactly the sort of beautifully out-there concept we want to hear from the Pixar corner. With the recent run of a lackluster sequel, a well-intentioned but more formulaic adventure, and an underwhelming prequel, the studio seemed to be slowly abandoning its mantle of storytelling mavericks-in-chief. But throughout those years, the approaching Inside Out stood out as a heartening promise that there was still plenty of mad scientist in the company. Well, now it’s here, and the latest Pixar feature is not just a gratifyingly ambitions return to form, it’s yet another great evolutionary leap for the studio.
The film centers on eleven-year-old Riley, or, perhaps more accurately, on the little voices inside her head. These are Joy, Sadness, Disgust, Anger, and Fear, embodiments of the emotions that course through the preteen girl on a day-to-day basis. They reside in Headquarters, the air-traffic control tower nerve center of Riley’s brain, and guide Riley through the ups and downs of life with support from the other parts of her brain (archive-like Long Term Memory, dark and murky Subconscious, the amusement park-like Imagination, etc.). There is some tension among the group – just what is the point of having Sadness around, really? – but under the guidance of de facto team captain Joy, the five emotions run a tight, happy ship.
That is, until Riley’s parents decide to transplant the family from its Midwest home to San Francisco. Suddenly stuck without beloved friends and treasured hobbies in an unfamiliar house that is a fixer-upper at best, and faced with the daunting prospect of navigating a new school, Riley’s psyche begins to go haywire. Joy does her best to keep a chipper outlook, but as various pressures mount, her positivity begins to fall on deaf ears. The situation is not a full-on disaster… until a traumatic event sets off a series of transformations across the brain and abruptly ejects Joy and Sadness out of Headquarters, leaving them marooned in Long Term Memory. Now the two stranded emotions – who are already not great friends on the best of days – must navigate the violently changing terrain of Riley’s brain and make it back to the control center while the well-meaning but mercurial team of Fear, Disgust, and Anger do their best to avoid any further catastrophes.
That’s a lot of story and a lot of world-building that the film needs to get done before it can really get rolling, but fortunately director Pete Docter and the rest of the Pixar Braintrust employ all manner of clever tactics to keep the wheels spinning at a brisk pace. For starters, they find an insidiously simple way around the challenge of getting through the enormous amount of rule-setting exposition the film demands: Make ‘em laugh, make ‘em laugh, make ‘em laugh.
Inside Out is Pixar’s funniest film in years. A lot of that is concentrated in the film’s first half hour, which makes it easier for the film to introduce its various mechanics. Consider, for example, Anger’s introduction. After Baby Riley refuses to eat broccoli, her dad threatens to not give her dessert. “No dessert?” exclaims Anger, wrestling the controls away from Joy and the other emotions. One lever-pull later, Riley’s in a full-on temper tantrum. It’s funny to see such a technical (for lack of a better word) spin on such a common day event, but we also register the way control can shift from one emotion to another. We get the mechanics, and move on.
The assembled voice cast is another triumph. Amy Poehler brings every bit of her Tinkerbell charm to Joy, and Phyllis Smith walks the fine line between low-key energy and gloomy anhedonia that Sadness demands. It’s a tricky role to make sympathetic rather than antagonistic and annoying, but Smith and the filmmakers pull it off with aplomb. (And more on that in a second.) Bill Hader and Mindy Kaling both bring welcome depth and weight to Fear and Disgust, but the film’s standout role is Lewis Black as Anger. Casting Black as the embodiment of rage is a forehead-slapping no-brainer, but, well, sometimes things are the obvious choice for a good reason. Black’s voice gels marvelously with Anger’s diminutive and volcanic (literally) design, each side of the equation amplifying the other’s virtues.
I could go on about how masterfully well assembled the script is, or how beautiful the animation is, but honestly that’s hardly surprising given the talent involved. What is worth noting is the depth that Docter and company bring to the ideas on hand. The big notion that Inside Out tackles is the different roles that emotions play in our lives and, more poignantly, the role that superficially unappealing ones play in taking care of us. Nobody likes to feel scared or angry, but these are vital to dealing with many of the things that life throws our way. The big, big question is why we need Sadness, and this is the riddle that Joy and the film must solve before the credits can roll. The ultimate answer that they arrive at is touching and startlingly eloquent, and (like the best resolutions) it feels unexpected from a distance but inevitable up close.
Verdict: 5 out of 5
Is Inside Out Pixar’s best film? That’s hard to say with so little distance from its unveiling. Ratatouille’s deconstruction of the creative process, Wall-E’s mastery over visual storytelling, and Up’s accessible maturity in face of mortality all loom very large indeed. But make no mistake: that is the company this latest effort belongs amongst. Gorgeously animated, relentlessly entertaining, and offering wall-to-wall laughs except when it stops to make you think, Inside Out is another jewel for Pixar’s crown. It’s a return to form for the reigning kings and queens of animation, and one of the smartest films you’ll see this summer. Just make sure you bring some tissues with you when you go into the movie theater.