"Inside Out" is a conceptually ambitious film unassumingly conceived, its mountainous layers of symbolic inference sneaking up on the viewer when he or she least expects it. The notion of personifying an 11-year-old girl's constantly shifting emotions must have posed any number of challenges for director Pete Docter (2009's "Up
"), co-director Ronaldo Del Carmen, and writers Meg LeFauve and Josh Cooley, but they exhibit a keen understanding of what goes on behind the eyes of a child who is still in the process of learning about their fast-developing plethora of feelings. Where the filmmakers have perhaps sold themselves a little short is in opting to tell a story that is set about a year too early in the life of 11-year-old human protagonist Riley (voiced by Kaitlyn Dias), on the verge of adolescence but not quite there yet. While this formative time would have offered vaster potential and scope than the limited one-week period instead centered upon, it does not take away from the oftentimes staggering insight, imagination and knowledge with which the filmmakers have brought to the ingeniously envisioned final product.
When Riley is uprooted from her comfy home in Minnesota to a run-down townhouse in San Francisco, she initially tries to make the best of things. As she watches her parents (Diane Lane and Kyle MacLachlan) struggling to make ends meet and gradually realizes she will not be returning to her old friends and life anytime soon, her inner glow and cheerful spark begin to fade. Suddenly, nothing matters to her anymore. She loses interest in trying out for ice hockey. She has trouble fitting in at school. She withdraws from her worried parents. Her normal, good-humored self is replaced by a short temper and overwhelming despondence. When this radical change occurs, Riley's emotionsthat is, Joy (Amy Poehler), Sadness (Phyllis Smith), Anger (Lewis Black), Fear (Bill Hader) and Disgust (Mindy Kaling), who are tasked with handling her memories and thoughts inside her brainare left dismayed and helpless over things they no longer seem to have control. When Sadness inadvertently starts turning previously happy memories into sad ones and a struggle ensues, she and Joyand an armful of Riley's core memoriesare whisked away from their all-important command posts in the sky. With happiness no longer in reach and Anger, Fear and Disgust now at the reigns of Riley's emotions, it is up to Joy and Sadness to find a way back to headquarters in hopes of repairing the crumbling islands (e.g., Family Island, Friendship Island, Hockey Island, Goofball Island, Honesty Island, etc.) that make up the young girl's personality. If they do not succeed, Joy fears, they may lose her forever.
2011's needless, offensively hypocritical "Cars 2
" notwithstanding, Pixar typically puts so much care into their projects that it is disappointing when one of them doesn't match its clear potential. Most recently, this occurred with 2012's "Brave
," a gorgeously animated but claustrophobic lesson in individuality that fell victim to a lack of adventure and mixed messaging. In spite of a few questionable missteps along the way, "Inside Out" is fortunately one to put in Pixar's success column. The decision to focus not on a more expansive, momentous period in Riley's lifesuch as her transition toward pubertybut on an abbreviated timespan where all of her emotions are connected directly with her dysphoria over moving to a different city seems at first glance like a missed opportunity. As the narrative unfolds and deepens, however, the realization sets in that why Riley is upset hardly matters; the point is that she is on the precipice of facing an intricate, overlapping range of emotions that are new to her and only about to get more complex. After all, her tumultuous teen years are but a breath away.
In the moments when Docter narrows in on Riley's familial bonds and her struggles over letting go of the life she once knew, the film especially resonates. A heart-to-heart bedtime talk her mom has with her soon after they have relocated to California is quiet and true, while a scene where she introduces herself to her new class at school and realizes for the first time that everything has changed reverberates with pangs both aching and identifiable. Lurking behind Riley's eyes is where the bulk of the story unfolds, and the innovative landscape that has been dreamt up to symbolize the many parts of her mind is a sight both visually arresting and intellectually stimulating. From the Long Term Memory labyrinth reminiscent of the one in 1986's "Labyrinth," to the many personality islands that begin dismantling as Riley loses her spirit, to the Train of Thought they hope to board to get back to their control-center home, to dazzling stops at the Hollywood backlot-inspired Dreamland Studios and the forebidding areas of Riley's subconscious, these sequences are not left wanting in aesthetic beauty and metaphoric intent.
The arrival of the lovable Bing-Bong (Richard Kind)Riley's purple part-elephant, part-dolphin, part-cotton-candy imaginary friend, who poignantly hangs onto the great times he once shared with his young creatorreinvigorates the Joy and Sadness storyline as our human heroine threatens to slip into the background. Less satisfying is the way Bing-Bong's subplot culminates in a disingenuous final scene that suggests children completely and utterly forget their imaginary friends as they age. This simply isn't the case (unless said person is suffering from a more profound issue of memory loss) and is one of the few dramatic snags that doesn't ring true.
More substantively disheartening is the thankfully brief gender caricaturizing that occurs during the one-note, oh-so-brief glimpses the film provides of Riley's parents' minds. The emotions in her dad's brain portray him as oafish, sports-obsessed and inattentive to his family, while her mom's emotions are fussily maternal and only distracted from their singular parental duties by images of studly, bare-chested Fabio types. Yes, these snapshots into grown-up psyches are meant to be throwaway gags, but they are based in underlying, lazy, antiquated stereotypes and threaten to send out an entirely wrong message to impressionable younger viewers. Docter and screenwriters LeFauve and Cooley are otherwise so observant and averse to tackling anything in two dimensions that it comes as a surprise they let this unamusing sequence slip by. A smarter, perter brand of humor and warmth arises from the heartfelt, ingratiating voice work of Amy Poehler (2014's "They Came Together
") and Phyllis Smith (2011's "Bad Teacher
"). Neither of these performers could be any more in tune with their disparate roles of Joy and Sadness, and the interplay between them is a strong spot as they come to understand how important each other is to Riley's development. By comparison, Lewis Black (2006's "Unaccompanied Minors
"), Bill Hader (2014's "The Skeleton Twins
") and Mindy Kaling (2012's "The Five-Year Engagement
") have little to do as Anger, Fear and Disgust, and are mostly forgotten about for a sizable portion of the running time.
It is positively wondrous to consider how a living creature thinks and the incalculable facets that make up his or her emotional responses and personality as a whole. "Inside Out" digs deeply into this very notion in a manner that is fascinating, eloquent and shrewdly penetrating. If the film isn't consistently as touching or laugh-out-loud funny as it strives to be, it makes up for it in wisdom and tenderness. Riley's involving relationship with her parents and the tug-of-war going on beneath her surface collectively lead to a final sweeping catharsis, while Joy's epiphany that one most have sadness in life in order to experience complete happiness is extraordinarily astute in its universality. "Inside Out" is a lovingly animated entertainment destined to work in different ways for different age groups, but it is that rare family feature that should inspire just about everyone to think. If my two viewings and significantly increased enthusiasm following that second watch are any testament, seeing it once simply isn't enough.
In theaters, "Inside Out" has been paired with a sublime animated short called "Lava," about two lonely volcanoes yearning for companionship. Beautiful in its simplicity yet vast in impact, "Lava" strikes a deep and stirring emotional chord in the span of five minutesideal as an appetizer for a feature film that is all about feelings.