The world presented by Pixar’s Inside Out is hard to describe, better seen than read, but resembles an elaborate video game with five very different players. Taking place within the mind of a young girl named Riley, five emotions within her personality–Fear, Disgust, Joy, Sadness and Anger–clock in and out on a daily basis, adding their personas (which are ingested through glowing balls of varying color) to her mindset. When Anger, for example, decides it’s time to give the girl a conniption fit, he punches a button or adds a light bulb that causes Riley to react accordingly.
The five emotions closely resemble their temperament (Anger’s head literally sets on fire, Fear is a bookish twerp, Sadness is blue, etc). We see Riley’s external journey, in which her relationship with her parents are strained after they move to a new home in San Francisco, where Riley misses her friends and feels like an outcast. Her five emotions struggle to keep up with the reactions Riley has to the enormous changes in her life.
Unlike most Pixar films, the cast is almost an all-star line-up. Amy Poehler (as Joy), Phyllis Smith (as Sadness) and Lewis Black (as Anger) are wonderful, but I was especially moved by Richard Kind’s work as my favorite character in the film, Bing Bong, Riley’s former imaginary friend. The world they inhabit looks distractingly like a video game (not unlike Sugar Rush from Wreck-It Ralph), as if the inevitable game spinoff were ready to be shipped at this very minute.
Pixar’s Inside Out has emotional punch and the expected visual brilliance (particularly in a sequence involving abstract thought) but there’s both simplicity and narrative limitations to its intriguing premise. I realize this a comedy for children and their parents, who will likely walk away with some insight into how the mind works and why. Yet, considering the serious turns the story takes (topics like depression and running away come up), it all seems kind of safe and cookie-cutter, particularly in the way the story resolves itself.
The Pixar brand, with extraordinary animation, engrossing storytelling and an admirable touch of thematic darkness, is in full effect, but the latter is noticeably softened. Not every Pixar movie needs to become as movingly bleak and emotionally complex as the climactic moments of Toy Story 3, but Inside Out only inches in that direction, then backs away.
Again, this is a family film, and I recognize that PG-rated movies that will one day play on The Disney Channel don’t need to plummet the depths of human despair. Still, there are some admirably tough, even painful moments that surface here and I hoped the screenplay would honor them and see them through. A key sequence where Riley has, for lack of a better word, a breakdown in front of her classmates is relatable, painful and touching to witness. So is the way a character within Riley’s subconscious sacrifices himself late in the story. In the end, rather than suggest Riley is at the beginning of a very long emotional journey ahead, the story concludes with pat uplift. That’s fine, I suppose, but I missed the brave march into daring, wrenching material, the way Up and even Wall-e did. Still, the messy emotional moments that hit hardest leave a mark.
Inside Out is full of beauty, state of the art visualizations and big laughs, but I wanted it to go even deeper. It’s accompanied by a Hawaii-themed short film called Lava, which is lovely, rich in feeling and likely to be less controversial with local audiences than Aloha last month.
I took my nine-year old cousin Jack to see this with me. He insisted that I should give this four stars, that it’s “better than Cars 2.” His suggestion made the head of the angry little man inside of me burst into flames.