Inside Out, the latest film from Pixar, takes a seemingly simple premise as an opportunity for creativity, wisdom, and wry humor. The animation is both cartoonish and ornate, so kids can laugh at the broad physical gags while adults will notice the dizzying attention to detail. That attention to younger and older audiences is the movie’s driving force: directors Pete Docter and Ronaldo Del Carmen add layers of depth here – sometimes literally – so that someone at ages ten, twenty, thirty will have completely different, yet genuine emotional responses to every joke and outlandish situation. Pixar is responsible for some of the best films of the last twenty years, not just in animation, and yet they have outdone themselves. This is their best film since Toy Story 3, and easily ranks among the studio’s best.
The human mind is an incomprehensible highway of tissue, neurons, and synapses, yet Docter and Del Carmen reconfigure it with an intriguing metaphor. In Inside Out, every person’s mind is monitored by five anthropomorphized emotions who jockey over the best response to all experiences, no matter how important or mundane.
The case study is Riley (Kaitlyn Dias), an eleven year old girl who loves hockey and moves from Minnesota to San Francisco. Her governing emotion is Joy (Amy Poehler), a busybody type-A sort who wants Riley to be bursting with happiness. She obstructs contributions from the others like Fear (Bill Hader), Disgust (Mindy Kaling), and Anger (Lewis Black), but Joy’s biggest adversary is Sadness (Phyllis Smith). No matter how much Joy protests, Riley’s move west means Sadness has her place. The impasse between Joy and Sadness reaches a critical moment, and they’re jettisoned from the central hub. The rest of Inside Out is their journey home through Riley’s mind, while the other emotions do the best they can.
Each of the five principles looks like an exaggerated version of the emotion they represent: Joy is bright and sunny, while Anger is red with bulging eyes, and so on. The visual imagination does not stop there, and part of Inside Out’s charm is how the world-building matches their narrative. Memories are the main output of Riley’s mind, and they’re visualized as multi-colored marbles. This simple conceit leads to gentle jokes: most of the mind is a warehouse for lost marbles – get it? – while other memories form the core of Riley’s soul. Since she is an eleven year old girl and moving away is the first real challenge in her life, the five emotions do not have the wisdom to realize that Riley is about to start coming of age. The genius of the script is that her encroaching wisdom runs parallel with the psychological journey of Joy and Sadness, who slowly realize how emotions work in tandem in adulthood. As a visual and storytelling metaphor, Inside Out is both straightforward and multifaceted, which means jokes land as often as emotional beats.
The animation veers away from the mind, too, and there are scenes where the emotions exist in voiceover as we watch Riley endure experiences both humiliating and triumphant. Like other high-concept films, Inside Out develops its own rules and film grammar, so the audience makes associations long before the characters do. In addition to Riley’s head, we sometimes hear from the emotions that govern her Mom (Diane Lane) and Dad (Kyle MacLachlan). I won’t reveal who runs the show for Mom and Dad, except to say there is knowing acknowledgment about how freewheeling youth gives way to the trappings of adulthood. While Riley’s arc is relatively low-key and has a familiarity to it – we follow her for a couple days, including her first day at a new school – the architecture and characters that populate her imagination have the high stakes of an action comedy.
The voice actors are all terrific, building on the characters they have from previous live-action experience, except Smith steals the show as Sadness. At first, her character is like a dorky, downtrodden version of Eeyore: always glum, without much to contribute. By the end of Inside Out, Sadness is the only way to govern through actual challenges, and the film’s joy is how Joy realizes it, too. The other stand-out voice actor is Richard Kind, who plays the memory of Riley’s imaginary friend Bing Bong (he’s an elephant hybrid who cries candy). Bing Bong’s arc is similar to the toys in Toy Story: he is happy and energetic, more or less, until he understands his obsolescence and fights against it. The Bing Bong arc has tragedy to it, yet Kind and his directors have the smarts to realize it’s inevitable, too.
The animation in Inside Out contains the hallmarks of Pixar – they exteriors and characters vibrant and well-developed, with careful attention to textures and light – yet the closest parallel to this film has little animation in it. In terms of visual metaphor and storytelling, Inside Out is like Christopher Nolan’s Inception, except Docter and Del Carmen’s film is richer and more ambitious. Nolan uses his dreamscapes as an opportunity for a weird kind of heist, while Docter and Del Carmen take relatively trivial experiences and imbue them with similar details and suspense. There is no pretense here, nor does it fall victim to Nolan’s reliance on a character as an exposition machine. By the time the credits roll and Inside Out steps into the minds all different types of people, I was grateful for the grace and wit with which Pixar approached its premise. It is so universal and appealing that most everyone who sees Inside Out will imagine the weirdos who run the controls of their own mind. Such afterthoughts signs of irresistible entertainment, and one of many indications why this is one of Pixar’s towering masterpieces.