Pixar movies have always had a nice, broad spectrum of content for both kids and the adults who accompany them to the theater. The balance alters a bit here and there; Cars 2 has little for the adults beyond a few gags, while Queen Elinor’s arc in Brave adds a subtle counterpoint younger viewers are likely to miss. But with Inside Out we’re all the way into Rango territory: this is an animated film for adults, structured around a fun and brightly-colored adventure any child can enjoy.
Built around the psychological theories of Dr. Paul Ekman — most famous for popularizing the idea of micro-expressions in The Human Face and Lie to Me — and his post-doctoral student Dr. Dacher Keltner, Inside Out tells the story of a difficult point in an eleven-year-old girl’s life through the lens of her five core emotions: Joy (Amy Pohler), Sadness (Phyllis Smith), Anger (Lewis Black), Disgust (Mindy Kaling), and Fear (Bill Hader), which also subsumes Ekman’s sixth emotion of Surprise. Most of the memories Riley (Kaitlyn Dias) has built to this point are happy ones, thanks to Joy. Anger is very insistent on fairness; Disgust helps Riley avoid poisons, both physical (broccoli!) and mental (social opprobrium!); Fear keeps her safe from other dangers. And Joy isn’t quite sure what good Sadness does, much as a kid might not, though it shouldn’t be hard for the grown-ups in the audience to figure out.
When Riley moves with her mom (Diane Lane) and dad (Kyle MacLachlan) from Minneapolis to San Francisco, everything goes wrong. Riley far from all of her friends and the only home she’s known (fear!); the new house is messy (disgust!); the movers are late (anger!). Inside Headquarters, Sadness has started poking at some of the memories — including the core memories that form the basis of Riley’s personality — turning their glow from a warm, happy yellow to a cool, somber blue. And when Joy tries to protect the core memories, she and Sadness get sucked out of Headquarters and plunked somewhere out in Riley’s memory, leaving Anger, Disgust, and Fear to run the show in their absence.
I’ve said that Inside Out is aimed at adults, but the spine of the narrative is perfectly accessible to kids, and the underlying lesson is one that should be stressed more in the world: growing up is hard, sometimes it will make you sad, and that’s okay. But the way the film gets this idea across is marvelously elegant, in ways I doubt most younger viewers will appreciate. Riley, like a lot of kids but especially girls, is told over and over how important it is to be happy and cheerful. The happy, even goofy Riley is the one who gets rewarded with her parents’ love, and so she stuffs her sadness down inside until it leaks out in unhealthy ways.
While they may lack the perspective to recognize every last point of the script, young audiences can still learn much from such a whimsical and friendly representation of real psychological theories on the interactions emotions and behavior. It’s like an introductory session in cognitive behavioral therapy for everyone who sees it: after understanding where Riley’s actions come from, how can a child not gain some introspection into their own?
The production quality is gorgeous, and it’s a big step up from the water-treading of Cars 2 and Monsters University. The emotions have a soft, slightly fuzzy texture, like Muppets, and Joy carries a beautifully subtle glow. The stereography on the 3-D version isn’t terribly essential, so catch the 2-D version where you can better appreciate a color palette as delicate as the one director Pete Docter used in Up.
And the voice work is every bit as good as the animation. Poehler’s Joy is wonderfully exuberant, almost working as an extension of her Leslie Knope character from Parks & Recreation. Smith is perfectly cast as the shy, hesitant voice of Sadness, as anyone who saw her work on The Office can understand. Hader and Kaling feel at home in their emotions, and Anger is the role Lewis Black was born to play. And Richard Kind turns in a terrific performance as Riley’s imaginary friend from childhood, Bing Bong, imbuing him with the perfect mix of goofy energy and pathos.
Inside Out is some of Pixar’s best work in years, and has plenty to offer the entire family, though I expect many parents will walk away more emotional than their kids. But even if you don’t have kids of your own, don’t let that keep you from seeing this film anyway; it’s meant just as much for you as anyone.
Worth It: yes.
Bechdel Test: pass.