Bring tissues. If you’ve ever been an 11-year-old girl, bring tissues. If you’ve ever had a child become an 11-year-old girl, bring tissues. If you’ve ever known an 11-year-old girl, bring tissues. In fact, if you are human who’s alive and has a heart, bring tissues.
One of the apocryphal quotes floating around the internet attributed to Albert Einstein is “If you can’t explain it simply, you don’t understand it well enough.” At first blush Inside Out may seem like a surface-level generalization of what goes on inside our minds but I’m pretty sure that’s the point. The people behind the scenes (including writers/directors Pete Docter & Ronaldo del Carmen) have relied upon professional research and done much of their own to craft a simple explanation to the complex issue that is human emotion. I’ve read that the idea came to Docter when his own daughter was in the roller coaster throes of adolescence and he couldn’t understand why.
The film opens with a voiceover from Joy (Amy Poehler, who is already a star but this could turn out to be her iconic role) who appears ex nihilo to describe the birth of a young girl named Riley. Joy (who has equal amounts love, wonder & whimsy as well) is responsible for all of the happiness in Riley’s life. Her room inside Riley’s mind is quickly crowded in by the other emotions you have seen in the trailers and on posters. Without anyone else to guide them, the emotions all learn what they are, together, as Riley grows up. Joy is usually in charge and, with a fair amount of aplomb, keeps the other emotions in check. There are some old boring manuals in a corner that describe the intricacies of the brain and how it all works, but only Sadness (Phyllis Smith) has the time & patience (& loneliness) required to read them.
Shortly after Riley (Kaitlyn Dias) turns 11 her parents drop a bombshell on her: they are moving from Minnesota and every friend & every thing she’s ever known to San Francisco. The why can be summed up as “dad’s job” though specifics are never given. Outside of the brain things go wrong almost immediately as the family arrives in town. Their moving van with most of their stuff has been delayed 3 days (which turns into a week or longer) meaning that there is almost no furniture in the house and Riley has to sleep on the ground in a sleeping bag. Inside her head Joy is still in charge so Riley is able to make the best of it. But something is brewing with Sadness and there is a curiosity and a desire for this emotion to touch every memory possible and cast a pall over them – especially at the worst time, like the first day at a new school.
The conflict between Sadness & Joy makes the blue one seem quite annoying for a while but this is absolutely done on purpose to yield a deep emotional effect in/on the audience later on (it succeeds). One of the skirmishes between Joy and Sadness ends up rocketing them out of “Headquarters” (where the emotions can each affect Riley in their own way thereby creating color-coded memories) and into various recesses of the brain. This leaves Riley devoid of her true personality and Fear (Bill Hader), Anger (Lewis Black) & Disgust (Mindy Kaling) in control with no idea what to do. So Joy puts it upon herself to find a way back to Headquarters and save Riley. And thus begins our adventure.
I’ve heard some reviewers call this Pixar’s best film ever, but I can’t quite go that far. It’s definitely up there, but I don’t even know if it’s Pete Docter’s best. When Monsters Inc, Up and the first two Toy Story films are on your resume, it’s hard to top yourself. There’s plenty of humor on many levels as well as a wholesome sense of family without being cloying. However, since the main focus of the story is on the emotions inside the brain, the “real world” story gets the short shrift. We really don’t know the real Riley or Mom & Dad because we only get glimpses of them inside memories and for a few lines here & there outside the brain. This means we also don’t get to know Riley’s personality because the emotions are constantly playing with her. While this gives us the main thrust of the movie, we don’t have a very deep investment in Riley outside of her happy emotion: Joy. The time spent with Joy & Sadness racing through the brain trying to get back to headquarters is brilliant enough to forgive those minor quibbles. The emotions of other characters are also played to great comedic effect (stay through the first half of the credits).
Voice acting is top notch as always (Richard Kind as an imaginary friend was a very pleasant surprise and wisely kept out of trailers). Animation is brilliant with Joy giving off a Tinkerbelle-like pixie dust whenever she moves. I saw it in 3D and while mostly unnecessary, it gave things like Joy’s “pixie dust” an added magical quality.
I can only hope that Disgust was not in control of the teenage girls sat near me in the theater as a middle-aged man (me) tried to hold in the tears & sniffling during the last 30 minutes of the film. I was caught off guard once Joy finally breaks down & I realized the sacrifice a character was about to make. This then left me wide open for the point when everything comes to a head (see what I did there?) and I could not stop the slow tears from coming. Your mileage may vary.
My grade: A-
NOTE: Lava is the short that opens the movie. It’s a very cute premise and has quite a catchy song, but it left me geologically confused. That’s not my area of expertise, though, so I went along with it. Enjoy!