Clever, funny joyride through the brain in Pixar’s ‘Inside Out’
It says something about the state of the movie business when some of the brainiest, funniest, most humane and heartfelt films are cartoons. Well, not just any cartoons. I refer, of course, to the animated output of Pixar Studios at its best. And now, in the tradition of Toy Story 2 and Up, comes Inside Out, a movie so smart, so crammed with ideas, and so full of genuine emotion that it reinvents the whole idea of what an animated movie can be. (Oh, and it’s really funny too.)
Inside Out is directed by Pixar veteran Pete Docter (he won an Oscar for directing Up) and Ronaldo Del Carmen, from a script that Docter co-wrote with Meg LeFauve and Josh Cooley. It begins with the simple premise that each individual person is governed by a mission control center in the brain where five key emotions constantly jockey for position. But rather than hit the viewer with too much explanation up front, the story begins at the birth of a newborn baby named Riley, which is also the birth of her feelings.
The personification of these feelings is the witty backbone of the film. First comes Joy (voice of Amy Poehler), as the baby gazes out at her mom and dad and the world with wonder and delight. In contrast to upbeat and plucky Joy comes droopy, woebegone Sadness (Phyllis Smith), born when baby Riley first cries for food. Next up is Fear (Bill Hader), a nerdy alarmist, warning Riley of every possible danger, real or imagined. Hot on their heels comes pouty, sarcastic Disgust (Mindy Kaling), and Anger (Lewis Black), whose head explodes like a volcano at the slightest hint of opposition.
As Riley grows into childhood, we see how the candy-colored kiddie gears of her brain work, fueled by “core memories.” These are key moments preserved in bubble-like spheres that establish the various “personality islands” that make her who she is. In Riley’s case, happy islands devoted to things like Family, Friendship, and Hockey (she’s an avid player), along with Goofball Island—her sense of humor. We see the conflicting emotions in other brains too, including Riley’s mom and dad, and the occasional domestic animal.
All systems are go in Riley’s command center—until her parents uproot her from her Minnesota home at age 11 to start a new life in San Francisco. As the challenges mount up (a lost moving van, the first day in a new school), there’s a foul-up in the control booth and Riley’s precious core memories are sucked up the vacuum tube and dispersed to some far-off corner of her brain. The intrepid Joy goes after them, dragging Sadness along with her. And as they journey through the outer limits of Riley’s brain trying to get back to headquarters (literally), the only coping tools Riley has left are Anger, Disgust, and Fear—gradually disconnecting her from her personality islands.
This is such a smart concept that could explain so much—bipolarism, Alzheimer’s, teen angst—yet Docter and company never forget to entertain. The trek through Riley’s brain is hilarious, from the Train of Thought that chugs around the periphery, to the movie studio backlot of her Dream Productions, to the funhouse carnival of Imaginationland, and the Abstract Thought chamber that turns the characters into Cubist, geometric patterns. In the Subconscious, they find Riley’s deepest fear—a huge, hideous clown.
Also lurking in the shadows is Riley’s Imaginary Boyfriend, whose single deadpan declaration (“I would die for Riley”) gets funnier every time it’s repeated. But Joy also discovers Riley’s forgotten Imaginary Friend, Bing-Bong (Richard Kind). A genial critter of mismatched animal parts and a big heart, who cries candy tears, he and Riley once built a wagon rocket powered by singing that would carry them to the moon.
This touch of whimsy is both charming and moving, a wistful nod to growing up and moving on in this accomplished joyride of a movie. And whatever you do, don’t walk out before the final credits roll—especially if you’ve ever shared your space with someone of the feline persuasion. (Who’s in control of a cat’s brain? Hint: nobody.)
****(out of four)
With the voices of Amy Poehler, Phyllis Smith, Bill Hader, and Richard Kind. Written by Meg LeFauve, Josh Cooley and Pete Docter. Directed by Pete Docter and Ronaldo Del Carmen. A Pixar release. Rated (PG) 94 minutes.