A little girl’s emotions have so rarely been given the attention and care as Riley’s have in Pixar’s newest film, Inside Out. When Riley (Kaitlyn Dias) is uprooted from her loving, Midwestern home and moved to San Francisco, her emotions go wild as she’s forced to deal with a new school, making new friends, a busy dad, and a new hockey team. This is when Joy (Amy Poehler), Sadness (Phyllis Smith), Fear (Bill Hader), Disgust (Mindy Kaling), and Anger (Lewis Black) come in, as they all try to keep Riley’s mental boat afloat. However, things take a turn for the worse when Sadness and Joy accidentally land themselves outside of headquarters and must make it back before all of Riley’s core memories, the ones that her entire foundation is built on, crumble away.
Pixar, as has been noted often, has taken a bit of a dip in quality lately, relying on sequels of popular films such as Monsters Inc. and Cars, their last original outing being the 2012 film Brave, which was (unfairly) considered one of their weaker outputs. Inside Out isn’t just a delightful return to form, it’s also one of the best films the Pixar studio has ever done.
Director Peter Docter has an eye for subtle storytelling moments that help ground the grander schemes and visuals, something that makes up the film’s more emotional moments. It’s telling that Riley’s experiences in the real world, as well as Joy’s inside her head, are able to both elicit responses. The creativity involved with imagining the literal thought process of decision making and certain agitations is superb, with animation that is vibrant, colorful, and new. There are few silent moments in the film, but when they appear, the score by Michael Giacchino and the imagery sweeps the film away, a standout being Joy watching Riley dream of ice skating as she herself coasts across the mind’s control center.
The world they’ve created for Riley’s mind is an excuse for the animators to run free with a childlike abandon. The laws of physics disappear, brain freezes are literal, and memories are steeped in golden hues. The characters defy gravity while the emotional moments are grounded in honesty. It’s why Pixar has been so successful–they take fantastical characters and settings and give them a heart, one that audiences old and new can relate to, and that’s on display, as strong as ever, in Inside Out.
The vocal talent on board with this film is wonderful and brings to life these already-colorful characters. Standouts, however, are Poehler as Joy and Smith as Sadness. Smith is perpetually downcast and bumbling but manages to inflect her character with needed sympathy and gravitas, and casting Poehler as the embodiment of joy was a stroke of pure genius. Her enthusiasm is infectious, her affection for Riley running clear and bright, and Poehler also has the beautiful ability to evoke the sadder, more bittersweet moments. She’s up there with Ellen DeGeneres as one of the best performers Pixar has ever showcased.
There’s such an inherent sweetness to the film, unsurprising when dealing with emotions, with a storyline tinged with more mature themes, important themes, that may go over kids heads but that older viewers will appreciate. It’s a children’s movie that’s telling its young viewers that it’s okay to be angry, because that helps you defend yourself, that it’s okay be disgusted, because that means you’re making choices about what you do and don’t like. The films says it’s okay to be fearful, because it keeps you safe, and it’s okay to be joyful, because that’s what allows you to enjoy life to its absolute fullest. And, most crucially, it’s a film telling kids that it’s okay to be sad, because that will make all the other happy moments the sweeter.
It’s an immensely thoughtful movie and one that fringes on melancholy. It’s a nostalgia machine for older viewers, while kids will be swept up in the magical setting of Riley’s imagination. There’s at least one scene with a ludicrously put together imaginary friend that will make any typical stone-faced viewer duck behind their hands, and a credits sequence that will have you chuckling as you leave the theater. It’s gorgeously crafted, with characters who are colorfully drawn and acted, a score that underscores the consistent action and occasional lulls where our characters reflect. There’s an enormity about it all: what goes inside a little girl’s head? What does it mean, and what emotions are appropriate? In the end, however, the message is clear and simplistic: it’s good to feel.
Inside Out is out now.