Pixar’s Inside Out (2015) is one of those “eat crow” moments.
The glories of Wall-E (2008) and the Toy Story trilogy have been overshadowed by the pedestrian equivalent of Disney Big Macs with such junk fodder as Monsters Universty (2013), Brave (2012), Cars 2 (2011), and Finding Nemo (2003). Pete Docter and Ronlado Del Carmen are the writing/directing team on Inside Out; their previous credits do not suggest anything resembling exceptional caliber.
Thus, when my Portland tribe voted on Inside Out, I made sure to grab the Rolaids on the way out, anticipating an overdose of saccharine banality. Within moments of this astoundingly remarkable film, my mirror of preconceived notions had delightfully shattered.
Inside Out is one of the most innovative (animated or not) films since The Lego Movie (2014) and, as an entertaining catapult into emotional intelligence via an adolescent girl, it actually surpasses, and is more important than, last year’s animated blockbuster.
The plot is threadbare and can be easily summed up. Riley ( Kaitlyn Dias) moves, with her parents (Diane Lane and) from Minnesota to San Francisco. She initially hates her new school, her new hockey team, her new town, but learns to acclimate herself.
Of course, that is something many of us have experienced at least once, so the excitement level, upon reading said plot, may not even register. Except that Inside Out honestly goes where few films have gone. It takes us into the fear of change. What better subject is there for that journey than an eleven-year-old girl?
Children fear change, which is why they often are obsessed with familiarity (of course, some adults are just as prone, but we will stop there in the spirit of avoiding polemics, for once).
We are taken inside Riley’s heart/mind to a very busy control room and introduced to Joy (Amy Poehler), Sadness (Phyllis Smith), Anger (Lewis Black), Fear (Bill Hader), and Disgust (Mindy Kaling). The characters are color coded: Joy/Yellow, Sadness/Blue, Anger/Red, and so on.
Although the emotion controllers are often at odds with one another, they work together for the benefit of Riley. They, like Riley herself, learn to adjust through trial and error to unexpected turns of events, mitigating circumstances, and the pains of evolving. Naturally, the lessons taught from either/or vs. both/and approaches are often painful ones, and commendably Inside/Out does not flinch.
This may sound vaguely existential, for a reason: it is existentialism. However, there is no need for trepidation; the production team smartly hurls everything at us at such an entertaining, kinetic pace that never once does it become pretentious. Rather, by the time we sink back into our seats during closing credits, we are inspired to comfortably smile, having matter-of-factly experienced familiar memories.
Riley’s dreams are produced in a dream factory, which gifts Inside Out enough breath to venture intoian terrain. An imaginary friend weeps Wonka treats and sacrifices himself so that Riley may survive adolescence. A future potential (and hilariously vapid) boyfriend also makes a similar sacrifice.
We visit the islands of Riley’s conscience—Honesty, Family, Friendship, and Hockey—and are pulled to the seat edge when those landscapes are threatened. Subtle shades of Rankin and Bass abound.
Joy is kind of the designated Captain Kirk of the emotion control team. She enjoys her position and clout as she runs back and forth manning an assortment of pinball levers. However, just as Bill Shatner did, she learns that, indeed Riley needs Sadness (Spock) and Anger (McCoy—true to form and tradition, Black, like De Forest Kelly before him, often steals the show without much effort). Beneath that realization is a layered critique of imposing false happiness on a child, who requires an essential full range of emotional experiences. MacLachlan’s thoroughly suburbanized father is another scene-stealer, an almost ironic subtext for the former Blue Velvet star.
There are moments of surrealism and abstraction, but these are filtered through a mesh of middle Americana, so much so that it would be easy to imagine the late composer Charles Ives being inspired to write a new a score for the film.
Seated between two clinical psychologists, I was not surprised to hear their approval. This may be the most un-Disney movie produced by Pixar. One can only hope Inside Out will inspire a whole new school in the art of filmmaking; one that could potentially change the way we think. It prompts us to think about thinking and, in doing so, it may be the most original and innovative movie of the year. Who would have thunk it?