For all the technical feats and visual artistry of Pixar films, storytelling remains the true marker of their success. “Story is king” is the mantra oft repeated at Pixar, for good reason. A film can be beautifully animated, but it needs a beautiful story to truly shine. Inside Out, the studio’s fifteenth feature from Pete Docter, has both in abundance. And what a beauty it is. This film follows in the tradition of gorgeously crafted storylines that have come to define Pixar. And it also marks Pixar’s triumphant return to the silver screen after their yearlong absence.
Inside Out takes place inside the mind of 11 year old Riley Andersen (Kaitlyn Dias). While Pixar films have taken us to the outer reaches of space and the depths of the ocean, along with other unique and imagined settings, Inside Out invites us to journey through a place we’ve never seen, but know exists. It’s here in Riley’s mind that a whole world blooms.
Living in this world are her five emotions: Joy, Sadness, Fear, Disgust, and Anger. They are the real main characters of this story, not merely feelings, but actual personified beings. Joy (Amy Poehler) is the first emotion that newborn baby Riley experiences, causing her to laugh. Her parents (Diane Lane and Kyle MacLachlan) are over the moon with love, and Joy is as well. She begins to envision a euphoric life for just her and Riley. This vision is short lived however, when Sadness (Phyllis Smith) arrives on the scene and makes Riley cry for the first time. Joy is understandably less than thrilled, trying to regain control; this theme is echoed throughout the film.
As Joy informs us, Headquarters only becomes more crowded. Fear (Bill Hader) shows up, perpetually frantic and always steering Riley away from anything unsafe. Disgust (Mindy Kaling) is around to make sure Riley avoids everything gross. Anger (Lewis Black) is mainly concerned with Riley getting a fair deal; when she doesn’t, his temper flares and flames erupt from the top of his head. Each of these emotions has their own distinct purpose for guiding Riley through her everyday life, but Sadness doesn’t seem to have one. Joy isn’t all that interested in finding out what that purpose could be but assures us that Sadness is just fine where she is.
The focus shifts once again to Riley, a sweet and boisterous kid who’s had a happy childhood and life thus far. Lining the walls of Headquarters are Riley’s memories, little spheres that glow a certain color corresponding to each of the emotions. Nearly all of them are yellow, for Joy. The core memories depict important moments in Riley’s life which power up each of her personality islands. These islands include family, friendship, honesty, hockey, and goofball.
Chaos soon strikes, disrupting life in Headquarters. Riley and her family are moving – from their beloved Minnesota to San Francisco, where her father is starting a new job. Fear isn’t the only one panicking about this major life event. Joy manages to stay upbeat and positive, constantly looking on the bright side of things while the others complain and fret. They, as well as Riley, don’t have a lot to be happy about. The new house isn’t warm or inviting; her parents are upset and stressed out about various things; and dad has to leave for work before they’ve even settled in. Still, Joy is determined to keep things happy. After some initial disagreement, the others decide it’s for the best as well.
Life outside Headquarters often informs life within, and vice versa. With Riley experiencing a wealth of changes due to the cross country move, Sadness wants to take a more active role in Headquarters. But she’s prevented from doing so by Joy. When the two of them clash during Riley’s first day of school, a disastrous event by all accounts, they’re ejected from Headquarters, leaving Fear, Anger, and Disgust to man the controls. Joy and Sadness, lost within Riley’s mind, need to journey together in order to restore balance to Headquarters.
Balance is key in Inside Out. The film does an excellent job of balancing the two unfolding storylines, shifting from Riley’s mind to the outside world with ease. There’s also a balancing of visuals, from the realistic outside world to the bright, cartoony mind world. The basic animation principles of squash and stretch are used to their greatest advantage here. Mind workers that Joy and Sadness meet are simple in design, but brightly colored and very cartoonish. The mind is so incredibly vibrant and perfectly realized. This is in my opinion, the most imaginative and creative Pixar world yet. Just the sheer size and scope of it are overwhelming, without spoiling any of the fun you have within it. Joy and Sadness travel through a variety of concepts – Abstract Thought and the subconscious for example – which spring up before them and us as actual places. The sequences in both of these locations are particularly inventive and in the case of Abstract Thought, extremely clever and hilarious.
In fact, clever and hilarious can be applied to Inside Out as a whole. The film is able to balance poignancy with levity; each of the laughs it induces are well earned. Trust me when I say this movie is hilarious, one of the most fun times you’ll have at the theater all year. The various ways it answers certain questions about the mind is all done in a silly but brilliant, and of course, clever fashion.
The voice work of the cast cannot be overlooked either. They all turn in great performances, embodying each of the emotions so perfectly. You want the “little voices” in your head to sound just like this. Amy Poehler and Phyllis Smith are able to strike a balance between humor and heartache. It’s amazing and a little ironic how much you feel for these emotions. Richard Kind as Riley’s imaginary friend Bing Bong, who I’ll let you discover and fall in love with on your own, is also stellar, giving one of the most memorable and heartbreaking performances ever heard in an animated film.
The film’s score, composed by that wizard Michael Giacchino, is whimsical and bright. The music is so beautiful to listen to, and matches the gentle moments, along with the more fast paced action ones.
At the core of Inside Out is the relationship between Joy and Sadness. For years Joy has called the shots in Headquarters, has never understood the purpose of Sadness, and has often tried to keep her from ever driving the console in Riley’s head. When they’re suddenly thrust into the vast reaches of the mind, she starts to learn more about Sadness and just how important she is to Riley, and also to all of us.
What Pete Docter, co-director Ronnie del Carmen, screenwriters Josh Cooley and Meg LaFauve, and the entire story team have been able to achieve is no small feat. It’s a tall concept, but the story is executed quite simply, without abandoning any emotional complexity or depth. It dazzles the eye, mind, and heart. You will have fun watching this film, but you’ll come away with some profound insights as well. And you will cry.
It is the resounding emotional poignancy of this beautiful film, combined with the animation, art, and humor that undeniably makes Inside Out an instant classic.
“Lava”, the musical short film attached to Inside Out is similarly dazzling in the visual department. The story is really quite simple, but a big delight nevertheless. While the short isn’t regarded as favorably as others, I found it charming, heartfelt, and endearingly sincere. You can add volcanoes to the list of anthropomorphic Pixar characters finding love in the most unlikely ways. And once again, the visuals are breathtaking. The love song echoes Israel Kamakawiwo’ole’s haunting rendition of “Over the Rainbow” which James Ford Murphy cited as inspiration. It’s also really catchy; you’ll find yourself humming the tune long after the short ends.
“Lava” features the musical talents of Kuana Torres Kahele, Napua Greig, and James Ford Murphy on ukulele!
Inside Out and “Lava” are released nationwide in theaters tomorrow, June 19th. Be sure to share your thoughts with us! And stay for the credits too!