The idea of the mundane turning into the amazing has been ingrained into the minds of audiences by Pixar for years. Toys coming to life when their owner isn’t there? Toy Story proved that viable. The urban legend of monsters living underneath a kid’s bed came to life in the form of Monsters Inc. A jolly boy scout and a grumpy senior citizen won the world over with Up (and the ten minute story of Carl and Ellie made hearts swirl). The latter two films were headed by Pete Docter which should inspire optimism from audiences. However, after two Cars movies, does Pixar still have that magic touch?
After sitting out of big screen releases since 2013’s Monsters University, the animation company has come back with an irresistible idea for an animated feature: the exploration of the mind of an eleven-year-old girl. The ensemble of characters? The five main emotions inside her head, namely Joy, Sadness, Fear, Disgust, and Anger. If it seems zany or too out-of-the-box, it’s because it is. Inside Out, directed by Pete Docter, was inspired by Docter’s observation that his pre-teen daughter was changing, subtly and slowly, through his very eyes.
Inside Out begins with the birth of Riley Andersen; the emotions come immediately after. First comes Joy, who narrates the film, then Sadness, Fear, Disgust, and Anger. After living in Minnesota for more than a decade, Riley’s pre-pubescent life is thrown in a shuffle when her family moves to San Francisco. Naturally, the emotions are baffled, with Joy and Sadness in conflict over how to respond. After a series of events leaves the two emotions disheveled and out of headquarters, Joy and Sadness must make their way through Riley’s mind before anything drastic changes.
The most surprising element to come out of Inside Out is how refreshing the whole package turns out to be. Maybe the idea of going back to basics, relying on a little kid, and turning that idea around on its head by seeing it through the perspective of the emotions, was all that audiences needed. From going through an endless hallway of shelves that store long-term memories to exploring Dream Productions (the part of Riley’s mind where Riley’s dreams are ‘produced’), the journey of Joy and Sadness is saddled with fun and engaging occurrences that set the film forward and in a good place.
It’s also profound how different the film frames the situations between the emotions. While Riley tries to fit in her new school and new home, the stakes for Joy and Sadness are higher because of the events that conspire. Eventually, as they journey through her mind, Riley’s drastic changes are shown on screen with a surprising amount of empathy and acceptance for her actions.
As the film progresses into a highly emotional climax, the voice actors giving life to the different emotions and characters in Riley’s mind put out their best foot (or voices) forward and give the film more depth than the usual fare. Amy Poehler as Joy shines as she anchors the film with her wit and sunny disposition, which lights up every situation the character is in. This humorously offsets Phyllis Smith’s portrayal of Sadness, which provides comic relief but also some realizations about different aspects of Riley’s personality and who she really is.
Let’s not forget about the other emotions, like Mindy Kaling, who portrays Disgust with enough bravado to make it stick throughout the film, Bill Hader, who plays Fear with old soul realness and a knack for safety, and Lewis Black, who plays Anger with no reservations and just lets go, much like the emotion itself. The humans, Riley and her parents (voiced by Kaitlyn Dias, Diane Lane, and Kyle McLachlan, respectively) turned in great performances for character arcs that would have been jumbled by other elements, but still stood out.
One of the film’s strong suits is how it portrays family life and the element of being one’s self, with a climax that might have audience members shedding tears. Director Pete Docter, together with his co-director Ronnie Del Carmen, admits to having researched extensively about the mind and how emotions affect people. It pays off in a way that illustrates how memories, the mind, and emotions work, with Pixar’s classic fun and humor retained throughout the film.
Most of all, Inside Out keeps the Pixar promise that everything is delivered with subtlety and with heart. The events that unfold inside Riley’s mind not only impact Riley, but also the way she deals with events in her life. This story isn’t about being a hero or being something significant in society, but it is about living. It is also about growing up and the surprising rate of change that comes at you when you least expect it — puberty done the organic way with the flair and signature style only Pixar can deliver.
All in all, Inside Out is really a triumph. It’s a testament to how original ideas can thrive in a landscape crowded by sequels, prequels, and franchise fodder. It works because of how the story unfolds, with people passionate enough to deliver something nuanced but also filled with understanding. It’s enough to make you say, “What will they think of next?” because of the sheer ambition and guts it takes to pull off a concept like this. After all, when emotions are in the center of the story, it could go all over the place, but thankfully, the heart and soul is where it’s needed to be.