American computer-animation studio giant Pixar has returned to form with another entry to the pantheon of great coming of age films. Inside Out is a film about the dawn of maturity. Most of the movie takes place in small moments in early adolescence. I would even go so far to say that Inside Out does that “small moments that define us” better than Richard Linklater’s Boyhood. Inside Out is much clearer about how the things that make us erupt out of childhood and into the world of adolescence come. It’s clever enough to know that what makes us grow up is coming to terms with the complexity of our memories and experiences. This is Pixar’s most clever movie since both the Toy Story trilogy wrapped and Ratatouille.
Few movies are as insightful so as to come up with a way to show how the way we remember our lives is what shapes our very identity. And as someone’s emotions change with those memories and associations, people change. When we’re young, we see our memories in simple, almost binary clarity due to a single emotion being associated with it. The film shows that in order to really grow up, we have to become much more nuanced emotionally as our emotions work together versus simply trying to condense our experiences down to “good” or “bad.” The film skillfully translates all of this down to the clear dramatic language “an accessible kid’s film.” It is funny, it strives to be touching at times but most of all it’s smart in ways that were once synonymous with Pixar in their heyday. You can tell we were in for something special the moment the film identifies the invariable and important uses of our emotions personified by avatars of Joy (Amy Pohler), Sadness (Phyllis Smith), Fear (Bill Hader), Disgust (Mindy Khaling) and Anger (Lewis Black). Ultimately, the film’s core and most important statement is the interlocking journey of Joy and Sadness. In real life, joy gives us energy, but sadness is actually the source of our empathy; what allows us to connect with the plight of those around us.
These personified emotions are rendered like Muppets in the mind of a 12-year-old girl whose family just moved from the Midwest to San Francisco. As she deals with this, we see these emotions and numerous other personified elements of the mind all interacting and changing within her. There is a “train of thought” that’s a literal train, a place where unnecessary memories are discarded to make room for others, imaginary friends and the emotion processing center is made to look like a command center from Star Trek. And what speaks to the power of such personifications is how much this film gets you to think of how anyone’s mind actually works. A similar thing happened when Christopher Nolan’s Inception came out. So while you may not exactly be able to relate to what the character is thinking and/or feeling, this movie is all about getting us to understand the basics of how we think and feel. There’s a great scene where we see other characters’ minds and how they differ from the lead and it encapsulates this all. The human mind is abstract, and it is through art that we make the intangible tangible; such is what the personification of the emotions in the film are all about.
Being able to look at a movie and come to a sense of understanding of how it all works is just completely critical to being in tune with our contentment and such behavior can be applied to a friend’s plight and even our own minds. What is it that makes us laugh, cry, scared, angry etc? How does that apply to something else? Is it possible to feel no emotion at all? All of this may seem ponderous to what is essentially a family film but I think it’s what we need in our family-friendly entertainment.
So yes, there’s a lot going on in Inside Out that’s extremely clever but is it a “good” movie? A movie can still be clever without actually being good (see, Jurassic World) but luckily, Inside Out is easily one of Pixar’s best movies which means yes it’s very good. The movie is colorful, vibrant, and quite entertaining. The almost Anime-inspired design of the inner mind characters contrasts neatly with Pixar’s typical style for the look of human characters and settings. From Joy’s “manic pixie dream girl” look, Sadness’ oversized turtleneck, all the way to Disgust’s mean girl, Fear’s springiness and Anger’s burning cinderblock look may seem on the nose to some but it just works. The world building in the lead character’s mindscape is rife with a myriad of visual jokes as well (blink and you’ll miss it). While the direction and animation is not as measured as it was for any of the Toy Story movies or Ratatouille, it is nonetheless on-par with the high quality Pixar is known for. The voice cast is great with Pohler and Smith really standing out (even if they are essentially playing their Parks & Recreation and The Office characters). The music is rather generic but Pixar movies have almost never had a great score, so it’s not a deal breaker. For what’s truly lacking in the movie, I’d say a few of the jokes don’t land, some of the other emotions outside of Joy and Sadness seem purposeless for most of the movie and there’s a rather telegraphed emotional beat that read to me as clumsily manipulative (movies are supposed to manipulate us, but when you can tell it takes you out of the experience). All in all only time will tell if we regard Inside Out the way we do classic Pixar.
Seeing a good Disney/Pixar movie again was great, and I’m sure that for many Inside Out will be their first. Just when I was about ready to throw in the towel with regards to animated cinema, this movie is a reminder as to what animation is best at.