From the Pixar and Disney studios comes this new animated adventure, which follows a family in their move from the Midwest to San Francisco. This drastic change proves challenging for the little girl, who feels conflicted emotions: Joy (voiced by Amy Poehler), Disgust (Mindy Kaling), Anger (Lewis Black), Sadness (Phyllis Smith) and Fear (Bill Hader), all five competing to take control over her mind.
The main thing that sets innovative animation outfit Pixar apart from its risk-averse rivals (…and owners) has been its willingness to wade into deeper emotional waters and expose little minds to Big Feelings. The best of its movies offer poignant glimpses at private pain: a pensioner mourning the loss of his soul mate; lonely space junk pining for a dance partner; discarded toys fretting about belonging. They linger enough to elicit empathy but still keep the plot rolling at a steady clip, so the melancholy dissolves into joyful adventure faster than a dog can say “squirrel!”. With its latest effort, the masterful Inside Out, Pixar takes its fascination for feelings to a literal but no-less shattering extreme, with a story about the emotional turbulence of a child.
Director Pete Docter is an expert in bittersweet stories of resilience, having penned Wall-E and directed Up. With Inside Out (which he co-wrote with Meg LeFauve, and Josh Cooley), he co-opts the technique of assigning human characteristics to core emotions (Joy, Anger, Sadness, Disgust, Fear). There’s plenty of giggles in a group of oddballs competing for control of 11-year-old Riley’s (Kaitlyn Dias) outward expressions - but brace yourself, kids, this sweet surface story of pre-pubescent growing pains goes to some very deep places. The upheaval of relocating to a new city sets off a creeping gloom within Riley, and the drama hinges on the catastrophic idea that she might succumb to depression and lose her capacity for joy. That’s right. This is a film that will introduce your children to the notion of ‘infinite sadness’, and they – and you – will be better for it.
The action unfolds within two worlds, the one Riley’s in, and the one that’s in Riley. Her happiness impulse, Joy, is a sunshine-y bossyboots voiced by – who else? – Amy Poehler. The effervescent comedian infuses Joy with the same never-say-die, stick-to-itiveness that made her Parks and Recreation public servant Leslie Knope so memorable. Joy (who looks a bit like Marge Simpson with a pixie cut) is the first emotion on the scene as baby Riley burps and gurgles into being, and she gives us a perky précis of the means by which our memories are made, mapped and banked. Riley’s cognitive development brings new emotions on the scene (and with them, updates to her operating console) and it falls to Joy to manage the unruly team.
Seinfeld’s George Costanza (Jason Alexander) once famously likened anger to “an old man trying to send back soup in a deli”. That same description applies to the combustible comedy of Lewis Black, who has carved out a niche as a cranky moral arbiter in guest appearances on The Daily Show with John Stewart and in stand-up specials like Old Yeller. Here, his hoarse exasperation (crammed into the compact frame of a seething alter kocker) elicits many of the film’s big laughs, as the fiery 66-year-old’s avatar waddles to the console to vent on an infuriated tween’s behalf. Elsewhere, a forkful of brussel sprouts conjures Disgust in its purest known form: a too cool for school, eye-rolling Mean Girl (Mindy Kaling, nailing it), and when things go bump in the night a jittery Bill Hader pops up as a wide-eyed worrywart, Fear.
However, it’s droopy-eyed Sadness who is the real star of this show, as voiced by Phyllis Smith (best known as the put-upon, frumpy office gossip Phyllis in the US version of The Office). Blue in every sense, Sadness is a meek downer with boundary issues, whom Joy tries – in vain – to keep away from the emotional levers.
When Riley’s family uproots across the country, Sadness begins to usurp Joy as the 11 year-old’s default setting. A mishap sends the two conflicting emotions on a mission to preserve Riley’s long term memory, and restore their girl to her happy core. With Joy and Sadness engaged in a battle for Riley’s emotional wellbeing, it falls to Disgust, Anger and Fear to handle day-to-day operations. That goes as well as you’d expect, and a series of humiliating epic fails tips Riley further towards the abyss.
Inside Out operates on a deeper plane, but uses the conventions of the buddy comedy to express complex ideas in very cute ways (notably dream creation, abstract thoughts and even the origins of earworms). The pain of being forgotten is beautifully articulated (in a nod to Toy Story) through the tale of Riley’s old imaginary friend, Bing Bong (Richard Kind), a furry pink composite of a toddler’s fantasies, reduced to scavenging the mini-skips of long term memory for discarded little keepsakes.
It speaks to the brilliance of Inside Out that many of the film’s insights about the interplay of emotion only come to light upon later reflection: Sarcasm, for instance, is a by-product of Disgust and Anger trying to fake Joy, and a brief peek at what makes Riley’s parents tick suggests a more evolved idea of emotional intelligence: her mum is led by a Sadness that shares a pally closeness with the others; her dad’s Anger calls the shots, but his bark is worse than his bite. (There are likely others that Docter & Co. have planted in my long term memory, and I look forward to them seeing the light of day.)
If, like me, you’ve been alarmed, angered, maybe even a little disgusted, by the glut of ho-hum sequels, prequels and threequels dumped into cinemas lately, this is absolutely the film for you. Inside Out is a triumph of Joy and Sadness and – at the risk of agitating my own inner Disgust for saying so – it will make you feel ‘all of the feels’.