Inside young Minnesotan Riley Andersen’s mind, Joy (Amy Poehler), Sadness (Phyllis Smith), Anger (Lewis Black), Fear (Bill Hader) and Disgust (Mindy Kaling) have been with her for virtually her entire life. From a central Control Room, the emotions help guide Riley through life, and shepherd core memories into “Islands” that make up different aspects of Riley’s personality. And their subcutaneous work is going very well, all told. That is, until the trajectory of Riley’s father’s career means a move west all the way to San Francisco. Can her emotions help Riley to adjust, or will the pain of missing her comfortable Minnesota life prove too much to bear?
The conceit of this film is a screenwriter’s dream, and endears itself to the audience immediately. From the first scene, it’s a joy to see the concept mined for humor, pathos and unexpected twists and turns; it’s rare for a film’s hook to be so consistently effective, and Inside Out takes full advantage of it. And there’s a fascinating dynamic that informs the emotions’ relationship with Riley, the person they are guiding/controlling/stuck within. It’s most succinctly illustrated in a scene where Joy watches a favorite memory of Riley on the Control Room’s view screen, and mimes Riley’s movements as a fan might mime those of their favorite athlete. There’s something sad and at the exact same time wonderful about the way the relative distance between human Riley and her sentient emotions is portrayed. At once they are at a remove and completely inseparable.
The concept makes for an inversion of the scale we usually see in film; what we are gawking at is not an endless vista from New Zealand or Tunisia, but an equally endless vista inside the mind of a girl. They’re turning cinematic convention inside out. The stakes likewise play into this, as they masterfully stress the heart. As each of Riley’s Islands of Personality is threatened, the audience knows that if it should fall, the consequences are pivotal to Riley’s mental state. A threat to the world, the galaxy, the universe requires a lot of abstraction; caring for one young girl’s emotional well-being is an easier empathetic exercise that gives Inside Out its dramatic lifeblood.
And the story takes some very adult, sophisticated turns. There is a significant character introduced in the Second Act, and the moment this one was introduced I knew which sobering way the story would go. But the adult awareness of this character’s fate only increases the respect due the film from the audience, for not sugarcoating the story.
There is plenty of cinematic awareness appealing to older viewers (such as unexpected references to old classics), indeed many jokes that play decently for kids but on a much more effective level for adults. But also I appreciate the cinematic techniques of the film – later in the film, the use of (simulated) hand-held camerawork in a certain sequence to convey misbalance and dread works a charm. Clever design work is also found around every corner. The emotion characters’ “fuzzy” exterior remind me of certain similarly coated cells, and Long Term Memory (seen below) resembles a host of chromosomes. Add in an impish, freewheeling score by luminary Pixar composer Michael Giacchino, and an excellent production is rounded out.
Now there is one little bit at the very end that weirds me out a bit. I understand why certain visual cues need to be lightning-quick to connect with the wider audience. I understand that these types of joke go down a storm in the theater. But there are a few characters’ Control Rooms that come off as too one-note or simplistic. There’s one in particular to which I thought, “Is that really all this character is thinking about right now? That’s a bit south of insulting.” I also wonder if we’re supposed to read into the relative gender balance of characters’ Control Rooms. Riley’s mother has five feminine emotions; her husband has three masculine to two feminine; while Riley has three feminine to two masculine.
Pixar has long since established a well-deserved reputation for films that make your emotions soar and thrill with pure entertainment value in equal measure. This film upholds that standard and then some. With great humanistic themes, effective humor, endearing characters, vital morals and its own brand of grand visual spectacle, Inside Out is a triumph for Pixar, one of the strongest films they’ve released in their 20 year history. And it’s impossible to walk out of the theater and have a conversation, or do just about anything, without framing it in terms of what the film has shown about your emotions. That’s a powerful film. A strong 9/10.
P.S.: Am I overthinking this, or is the castle seen below representative of the classic Disney castle? When Riley’s world is being turned upside down, is the equivalent of a childhood Disney fandom at risk?
P.P.S.: Here are the father and mother’s Control Rooms, for comparison.