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REVIEW: Inside Out, Pixar Animation’s latest release is a bold new direction from the award winning studio who brought us UP, The Incredibles, and of course, the Toy Story series to name a few. It deftly steers away from the formula that they themselves helped create, making Inside Out feel fresh, imaginative and wholly different. It is one of the best films, animated or not, to hit theaters in decades.
From the very first note, something is new. As the familiar Pixar logo appears with Luxo Jr. stomping out the ‘I’, there are no cute sound effects, no wiggle noises from the little lamp like normal. When his light shines at the camera, the screen goes black instead of white. Also, there is no Randy Newman. No upbeat playful tune. Instead, it is Michael Giacchino and a soft, warm, movement that is a little mournful but delicate as well. It may seem insignificant, but it establishes much about the journey we are about to share. This is an emotional beginning.
And it starts with a baby. After a simple narration, we see a newborn, swaddled in blankets, the world around her a wispy washed out world where there is only light. This is the moment Riley opens her eyes for the first time. It creates Joy. “Joy” is a core emotion, the first to arrive and we zoom inside of Riley’s head and see Joy realized as a living being, a yellow and blue sprite with big eyes that mixes Disney’s Tinkerbell, The Simpsons, and a little anime. She stands right behind Riley’s eyes and in front of her is a single big button. When she presses it, Riley coos and smiles, inciting her new parents to welcome their daughter. It also produces a small golden orb that rolls along a narrow tack like a marble in a Rube Goldberg-esque track down to Joy. It is Riley’s first memory. The first of many that Joy thinks will be theirs alone forever. Except, a new emotion arrives and changes that. Her name is Sadness and when she presses the button, Riley cries.
Soon after, a few more core emotions show up as Riley grows. There’s Fear, Disgust, and of course Anger. These emotions control Headquarters, and each has a stake but not without the influence of the others. As Riley ages and acquires new memories, the button develops into a large control panel atop a tall tower encircled by a growing collection of orbs that represents all the experiences of the little girl’s life, stacked in ever-widening curvy rows of shelves (like the twists of the brain’s cortex) that stretch far out in to the distance. Riley has also develops “islands” of personality, such as Family, Friendships, Hockey, and Goofball. Things are running smoothly in Riley’s head as she grows up in Minnesota, a single child in a loving home. Nothing could be better.
And then, when Riley is eleven, her father announces they are moving to San Francisco. This equates to the first real challenge for the emotions and sets up the story where at her new school, on her first day, while Riley is joyfully telling her new classmates about life in Minnesota, Sadness touches the memory orb that Riley is accessing. It turns the globe blue and instantly shifts Riley from happy to sad, reducing her to tears. It also creates Riley’s first sad “core” memory; all others have been gold, the color of Joy. Joy struggles to prevent the memory from being permanently set and fumbling with Sadness, knocks out the other core memories, instantly disabling the connection to the personality islands. They are then accidentally sucked out of Headquarters and thrown into the memory dump. Riley is now lost, personality-wise and worse, left with only Fear, Disgust, and Anger at the helm. It’s a race now for Joy and Sadness to get back to Headquarters and restore Riley back to normal.
Inside Out is not a fantasy. That’s what makes this Pixar film different from the others. It presents life outside Riley’s brain in a very realistic way, though the characters are of course heavily stylized in that familiar Pixar fashion. Inside her brain, everything is allegorical or metaphorical but wholly based on absolutes. The writers are clearly well-educated on psychology and psychological concepts, and use these to great effect. Joy and Sadness travel through the parts of memory we are most all aware of and it’s striking to see how Pixar envisions these areas. As is standard with Pixar, there is much that young viewers will be enamored with, especially the beautifully rendered characters and landscapes, but like the titles mentioned above, there is much for adults to enjoy, and perhaps more so with Inside Out, more for them to think about.
This is especially true when we meet Bing-Bong, the long lost imaginary friend of Riley that we never actually saw earlier (though was glimpsed very briefly as a drawing young Riley scribbled on a wall). The character is remarkable and one of the best in the Pixar canon, having perhaps the finest moment in this or any Pixar movie. Adults will watch Bing-Bong with a whole different perspective than children, of course, and the emotional spin of his impact on the film is both surprising and beautifully realized.
Perhaps what Pixar handles best though, is the emotions themselves. This is a delicate matter and the writers do an excellent job never making any emotion so dominant that the others are not important. It seems like the story will gear more toward Joy being the dominate emotion, and in fact the others rely on her to run Headquarters, but none are left out of influence. But more specifically, Inside Out goes to a place few children’s films go, and does it without directly saying it. That is depression, and while many Disney films have moments where characters are sad, Riley is undeniably struggling and the film doesn’t gloss over this. Too young to even understand what is happening, she reacts with confusion and outrage, sinking into loneliness. This isn’t solved with magic. And it isn’t given any humor while we are outside of her mind. This is pitch perfect and gives the character much more weight. Most adults will recognize this delicate stage in development and kids watching, too young to understand will assign their own feelings to it while those experiencing it may in fact find some hope. That is because Riley is allowed to explore the depression and when she is able to make some small sense of it, able to make a change. That she discovers this on her own is a testament to the film makers, and how she learns to be finally free of it is truly a wonderful, powerfully fulfilling moment.
This is truly why Inside Out is such a success. Riley and the others are not one-dimensional fountains of inane bits of empty advice and axioms. There are no platitudes. While inside Riley’s mind is populated with colorful cartoonish characters, what they deal with and what they represent are more grounded and authentic than anything Pixar has ever handled before. Riley is never spoken to or presented as if she is immature or childish. Her parents also are not the overly-drawn “out of touch” old people that are so often the source of agony for kids in film. They are smart and caring and give their daughter space to grow. Joy and Sadness, while exaggerated billowy characters become much more. One is a link to the other, and we never get the sense that they are the reason for what Riley feels but a mechanism that she is influenced by. It’s a delicate balance that, as the story progresses, define the relationship between them all and is a, for lack of a better term, joy to watch.
This film has had some interesting critical reviews and inspired a lot of conversation. Listen to our podcast for more.
I further invite you to read a well-constructed opposing view of this film by The Blazing Reel that offers a different interpretation.