By Kyle G. King. After exploring the emotional landscapes of toys, bugs, monsters, fish, superheroes, cars, robots, old men, young children, talking dogs, and toys a few more times, Pixar’s options had begun to dwindle. But with Pete Docter (trusted director of Toy Story and Up) co-writing and co-directing, the studio rears its head from a rough five years of below-par material to triumphantly explore the emotional landscape of actual emotional landscapes in the coming-of-age tale Inside Out.
Living her entire life in cold rural Minnesota, eleven year old Riley (Kaitlyn Dias) has been raised by her adoring parents (Diane Lane and Kyle MacLachlan) on ice skating and hockey. While Riley is in essence the central character of Inside Out, she is also the setting, as the film splits its time between her outside life in the “real world” and time spent inside her own head with the team of personified emotions that command her.
There’s Joy (Amy Poehler), Sadness (Phyllis Smith), Fear (Bill Hader), Anger (Lewis Black), and Disgust (Mindy Kaling), all color coded in fun shapes to reflect their loud and rooted personalities. Fortunately the team has had a relatively easy job so far with Riley – as the only child of devoted and affluent parents Riley hasn’t had to face all that much hardship – but Joy’s stance as the dominant emotion of the group is uprooted when Dad gets a new job opportunity in San Francisco and the family is forced to move across the country. Riley and her support group of emotions soon find their easy ride becoming bumpy and their status quo challenged as the complicated cerebral landscape of the pre-teen protagonist struggles to adapt to a new city at such a confusing and tender age.
After twenty years of Cinescore straight A’s, Disney-Pixar productions foster a higher caliber of expectation in movie-goers, from age seven all the way to seventy. Inside Out – with its candy gags and Waiting for Godot references alike – doesn’t simply offer something for all ages, but fully serves a huge helping of psychological unraveling for everyone to appreciate—and literally travel the emotional spectrum with. While the animation style stays relatively familiar, the plot of Inside Out is able to step forward and explore the brand of progressive and elaborate ideas that Pixar has come to be known for. A well-conceived and fun-to-discover world spanning the mind of an eleven year-old, along with contextually rich voice performances from an all-star cast, anchors and constructs Inside Out around a concept that is both engaging to watch and elementary to understand.
Splitting screen- and world-time between emotions and people allows the high stakes of the film to remain pressing within both worlds separately. With no direct villain or imminent danger to be found, Riley and her emotions find that the only remaining threat is in facing themselves and the unknown – an extremely mature and risky theme for a family friendly film to tackle. A lesser studio might depict a towering figure named Puberty or Hate or Sadness to muck up the heroic emotions, but Inside Out hoists Sadness and the other arguably negative feelings as pivotal (and even favorable) contributions to its character list and to the human psyche altogether. The film demonstrates that it takes a mixture of all the emotions both singularly and collaboratively to navigate friends and family and simply get through the day, all of which engage smart commentary and amusing animated visuals. The cerebral mechanics of dreaming and how songs get stuck in your head play out like fun Rube Goldberg-esque machinery and offer complex psychological devices that can be visually simplified and digested.
Inside Out proves to be a fun, smart, and all-ages-appealing movie that knows how to handle itself. While cynics might be able to find holes in the plot mechanics inside Riley’s head (like why Joy feels sadness or how exactly five emotions can entirely rule your mind), disbelief is easily and enjoyably suspended when the material at hand respects itself and respects its audience. Inside Out is essential Pixar, a film that reminds us how magnificent this studio can actually be. It’s a great feeling.