Sadness can be good, Inside Out tells us. That’s not the kind of thematic material we typically see in a children’s film.
Animation giant Pixar’s latest film – their first big screen feature since Monsters University in 2013 – hopes to return the studio to their great successes of a half decade ago: The Monsters sequel, Brave, and Cars 2 were large disappointments following one of the greatest strings of animated films in Hollywood history (Ratatouille, WALL-E, Up, and Toy Story 3).
And Inside Out just about succeeds. This is one of the most inventive, ingenious, thought-provoking mainstream children’s films you’ll ever see, featuring a cast of characters that represent the emotions inside an 11-year-old girl’s head.
Yes, that’s right: there’s Joy (voiced by Amy Poehler), Sadness (Phyllis Smith), Fear (Bill Hader), Disgust (Mindy Kaling), and Anger (Lewis Black). Together, they control how young Riley (Kaitlyn Dias) reacts in certain situations and feels in general, though they don’t seem to know, exactly, how that process works.
Neither do we, and that’s both one of Inside Out’s greatest strengths and biggest weaknesses.
There’s an amazing landscape of imaginatively realized mindscapes, with dreams, nightmares, imaginary friends (Bing Bong, an animal amalgamation voice by Richard Kind), spheres of memories, and core memories that are isolated in a central chamber and power five islands of personality that make up Riley’s core being.
There’s even a literal Train of Thought that Joy and Sadness hitch a ride on after getting sucked out of central command and thrown into a memory maze.
The film’s abstract ideas – like when Sadness touches a core memory, causing Riley to become sad when she thinks about it – are a joy to behold. It’s things like these that you’ll never see from another major studio, and remind us of the creative genius inside Pixar.
Best scene: a dinnertime argument, cutting from Riley and her parents sitting around the table to the emotions inside of each of their heads. An end-credits montage ingeniously follows up on the ideas explored here.
But because the film never fully explains how things work inside Riley’s head, we tend to get lost. Inside Out wants to set up a cause-effect correlation between the outside world of Riley and the inside world of her head, but sometimes the two planes seem to be operating completely independently from each other.
At other times I didn’t understand the internal logic of how Joy and Sadness overcome the obstacles the plot throws at them (I mean, the literal events are clear, but the logic of what that means inside of Riley’s head is sometimes fuzzy).
That’s my one quibble. Otherwise, Inside Out is a real joy, and just shy of the studio’s finest films.
The five emotions at the center of the film seem to have been taken from Robert Plutchik’s eight basic emotions, though trust, anticipation, and surprise have been dropped.
I’d love to have seen the animators take on those last three, but the vividly-realized characters here have been inventively crafted, each based on their central quality: Disgust, for example, is modeled after a stalk of broccoli. The voice cast is also spot-on, with Hader’s Fear and Black’s Anger real standouts.
I especially loved the character design on some of the supporting creatures, who seem to have come from the mind of Don Hertzfeldt.
Directed by Pete Docter (Up, Monsters, Inc.) and Ronaldo Del Carmen, Inside Out is one of Pixar’s best reviewed films, sitting at 98% on the Tomatometer after making a splash at Cannes a couple months back.
It’s great, but temper expectations: Inside Out doesn’t quite reach the highs of the studio’s best work. Still, it’s great to see Pixar returning to form.