Nutshell: quite possibly Pixar’s first existential children’s film. Inside Out may have all the bright-n-shiny for the little ones, but make no mistake; adults will be the ones that really dive into this film. Tons of stuff to love, though a few scary/sad moments for the very wee ones. Grade: A-
Okay first things first; this is not a new idea. Herman’s Head did it in the 90s, and there have been tons of other media that have dabbled with the whole “personification of emotions” thing. HOWEVER. Inside Out is flat-out adorable. Disney-Pixar does what it does best; making things as kawaii as humanly possible. And this time they knock it out of the park.
Riley is 11. She knows who she is; she’s got a great family, a cool BFF, a killer slapshot and just the right amount of goofball. But when her family moves to San Fransisco, things start to shift. Things get worse when the emotions that guide her — Anger, Disgust, Fear, Joy and Sadness — get separated. Without Joy and Sadness, can Anger, Disgust and Fear rule the day? Perhaps if she was a crotchety old man yelling at kids to get off her lawn. But that’s not the case…
I worried that Inside Out would be a one-trick pony. And yes, the story is a “get the band back together” story that’s been done to death. But that’s because it works. The story focuses on the emotions, and less on the human characters that are guided by them. Why? Because focusing on the humans would be a downer; who wants to see a movie about a kid that mopes around for an hour and a half, and the parents that worry about her? (Indie film fans, put your hands down.) Focusing on the cute anthropomorphic emotions lets Inside Out become a surreal, acid-trip of a film. In fact, Inside Out gets you deep inside someone’s psyche, from dreams to abstract thinking, trains of thought to core memory. It’s a psych student’s dream come true.
Before you throw your hands up and say that that description doesn’t have Kids Film written all over it, know this; Disney-Pixar knows exactly how to color a child’s world. There’s tons of beautiful, bright colors, flashing lights, and fantasy imagery. But as with Toy Story and Up, there are serious themes that come with all the jazz hands. Figuring out who you are, trying to start over again when life throws you a curve, being who you are, and the good ol’ value of family and friends hit hard in this screenplay. But with all the fun, it goes down smooth. Think french fry forests, a candy floss imaginary friend that cries candy (“try the caramels. They’re delicious…“), and a rainbow unicorn that is THE star of dreamland. It’s as if they animated the drug trip from 22 Jump Street, and added more cute to make up for the lack of Tatum.
The voice actors here are fantastic, and hit a perfect balance between their own personalities and being just different enough to keep things from being an “I know that voice” contest. My favorite has to be Anger. Who knew Lewis Black could be such a cuddly-wuddly little fuzzy brick? Yes, I’m sure he just died a little inside as soon as I sent that statement out into the universe. But it’s true. In fact, all of the emotions here are fantastic. Disgust (voiced by Mindy Kaling)? Your favorite frenemy that always looks fantastic. Fear (Bill Hader)? It’s tough to figure out if you want to snuggle him and give him a cookie, or take him seriously and head for the hills. As Sadness, Phyllis Smith from The Office gets to do some heavy lifting, all the while trying not to be sad…and failing miserably (pun intended.) It’s adorable.
Amy Pohler as Joy gets top billing, and her chaotic but kind-hearted character drives the action. The animation is wonderful, giving Joy just enough of an ephemeral sheen to remind folks that she’s a concept, and also give her a slightly fuzzy Muppet feel. Pohler dusts off her hyper psyched Parks & Rec persona here, giving Joy a relentlessly upbeat personality that never becomes annoying or trite.
Yes, this is a kiddy flick that seems tailor-made for adults. And while kids will love it, very young ones (or children that are especially tender hearted) may be spooked by some of the bleak landscapes here. As Riley becomes more and more disconnected from her emotions, things start to break down, and the destruction is done in gorgeous, but somber, industrial greys. Then there’s the pit of forgotten memories, where some things Riley did in her life are shuttled off and forgotten. It’s bleak, dark and in the case of one particular scene, heartbreaking. And don’t get me started on her subconscious. Two words: birthday clown. Okay four: birthday clown from hell. Clowns. Nopenopenope. Very young ones may need to curl into someone’s shoulder, just sayin’.
Make sure to stay through the beginning of the final credits; there’s a fun few scenes where you can get a look at these emotions from…well, let’s just say it’s a different angle. And it’s a hoot.
Note: the animated short that pairs with Inside Out is Lava, a sweet story/song about a lonely volcano in the South Pacific. It may be cheesy (okay, it’s very, very cheesy) but it’s also kinda cute. And doesn’t overstay it’s welcome. Enjoy!