Voices of Amy Poehler, Phyllis Smith, Kaitlyn Dias, Richard Kind, Bill Hader, Lewis Black, Mindy Kaling, Kyle MacLachlan, Diane Lane
Take tour of an 11-year-old girl’s troubled mind, guided by her conflicting emotions. It’s worth the trip.
Disney’s comic drama Inside Out brilliantly explores modern psychology while offering a treatise on animation’s far-reaching possibilities. And it’s all wrapped in a guise of a kiddie flick.
Upon first listen, the high-minded concept sounds like it just shouldn’t work. Riley’s (Dias) five major emotions – joy, sadness, disgust, temper, and fear – fight to keep the young woman functioning as she deals with a move from Minnesota to San Francisco.
We spend most of the movie in her brain, with these sprite-like emotions.
The truth is that when filmmakers take big risks like this, they find new possibilities. Powered by Pixar Studios and their meticulous development process, Inside Out is an out-and-out triumph.
Joy – voiced by Poehler at her most manic – has always been the major driver in Riley’s life. She runs the girl’s central brain, managing everything from behind a slick control panel. Joy’s biggest challenge has been keeping Sadness (Smith of The Office) from gumming up the works (sort of like The Flintstones’ Schleprock, bringing in a raincloud wherever he goes). Then the family has to relocate from the sunny Midwest to the grim, gray West Coast. (This geographic color shift only makes sense when we consider that this story is told by Riley’s psyche.)
Pete Docter directed; he also oversaw Monsters, Inc. and Up. He’s a master at making primary-colored kiddie flicks that also slyly speak to adults. Docter crafts animation that can bring us to tears – remember those first seven minutes of Up – and it really shows in Inside Out.
So, when Riley’s world falls apart, Joy tries to fix it by tamping down Sadness and every other feeling. Instead, comic chaos ensues. Joy and Sadness have to travel through long-term memory, deep-seated fears, and even the subconscious to rescue Riley before the depressed, disconnected girl does something drastic.
Sure this concept isn’t completely new – see the failed sitcom Herman’s Head. However, the precision-driven Pixar team fills in all the gaps, creating a whole candy-colored world inside Riley’s mind. Inside Out is always intriguing – informed by psychological theory, and fueled by imagination. Sure, the logic doesn’t always make sense; this is as it should be, since we’re traveling in a volatile tweener’s brain.
Of course, this is Disney; there’s a secret message about accepting and effectively utilizing all your emotions. It’s the sort of moral that would make self-help guru Daniel Goleman – the creator of Emotional Intelligence – beam.
But more importantly, Inside Out lets audiences really connect to Riley, to empathize with her. In that way, the adults among us could find ourselves becoming introspective. Again, Docter crafts moments that may even bring a lump to our adult throats. For a highbrow concept disguised as a children’s film, that last feat is the most mind-blowing of all.