REVIEW: Joy and Pain in Pixar’s “Inside Out”

Emotions overflow often when watching a great Pixar film — think of the great marriage montage in “Up,” WALL-E and Eve’s enchanting space waltz in “WALL-E,” Woody, Buzz and the gang facing the abyss with a brave finality, hand in hand, in “Toy Story 3.” It only made sense that, eventually, Pixar would engage directly with those emotions.

Thus, we arrive at Pete Docter’s “Inside Out,” a conceptually adventurous work that rises above Pixar’s lesser recent efforts to sit beside their past classics, delivering what movies used to promise but so rarely deliver: an experience to melt away our cynicism and melt our hearts.

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Fear, Joy and Disgust in Disney/Pixar’s “Inside Out”. Photo via Ma_Co2013 (Flickr).

The mind, however, is the subject here, that of an 11-year-old girl named Riley (Kaitlyn Dias). Inside her young noggin, we see the busy workings of five basic emotions: Joy (Amy Poehler), Sadness (Phyllis Smith), Fear (Bill Hader), Disgust (Mindy Kaling) and Anger (Lewis Black).

During the early years, we see Joy mostly in command, turning the knobs and pushing the buttons on a control board that spark the incessant cheer that Riley experiences in her toddlerhood. As the years accrue, the film notes specific benchmarks in Riley’s life with honey-hued warmth that evoke family pictures in a photo album. Some of these moments include her first hockey goal or a goofy stroll down the sidewalk with her best friend.

These moments make up her core memories, represented by small glowing orbs. These memories power Riley’s “islands of personality” (Goofball island, Family island and Hockey island, among others), which look like crosses between power plants and amusement parks. For Joy and the rest of the gang, making these orbs glow with happiness makes for a successful day at the office.

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Riley’s Mother, Riley and Riley’s Father in Disney/Pixar’s “Inside Out”. Photo via Ma_Co2013 (Flickr).

That happiness is soon jeopardized when Riley’s dad is forced by his job to move the family from their Minnesota home to an apartment in San Francisco. For Riley, this means leaving friends, hockey and home behind, and in their place a flurry of mixed-feelings.

The big move provokes some rather standard sequences on the surface: a dinner argument, hockey practice, a rough first day at school. Where the surface is enriched comes from all the wonderful wit, detail and artistry going on beneath it.

Riley’s emotions are a bickering and hectic bunch, with Joy mostly trying to retain control as Riley finds fewer and fewer reasons to be happy.  Like Poehler’s Leslie Knope on “Parks and Recreation,” Joy is almost exasperatingly optimistic, but always endearing, and we sympathize with her when Sadness begins touching all the memories and turning them blue. Then there’s Black channeling his “Daily Show” ranter in embodying the short-fused Anger, Hader all twitchy and erratic as Fear, and Kaling lending Disgust the prickly vividness that fans of “The Mindy Project” know well.

And Smith, “The Office’s” favorite wet blanket, is pitch perfect as Sadness, whose purpose the other emotions just don’t seem to get.

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Fear, Sadness, Joy, Disgust and Anger in Disney/Pixar’s “Inside Out”. Photo via Ma_Co2013 (Flickr).

It is that purpose, however, that “Inside Out” so powerfully explores and clarifies. From the start, we, like Joy, want Riley to be happen, and we understand Joy’s actions when she draws a circle on the ground and instructs Sadness  to stay inside.

That is just one of many subtly powerful metaphors “Inside Out” creates for what’s going on in Riley’s head. The bulk of the film’s drama comes when Joy and Sadness are separated from the pack and are forced to find their way back to headquarters from the maze of Riley’s memory banks and subconscious.

The many literal explanations and visuals “Inside Out” concocts for the ways Riley’s mind works are best left unspoiled. Sufficed to say Docter is examining rather heady psychological and abstract terrain. Along the journey, Joy comes to see Sadness as a vital part of Riley’s growth, an emotion to welcome, not to repress.

This idea is helped along through the introduction of another character, the imaginary friend Bing Bong (a delightful Richard Kind), whose story arc links “Inside Out” to Pixar’s other films about the end of childhood.

There may be no more pleasurable a feeling this summer than watching a movie that, during a season where the world ends on more than one occasion, gets so much suspense out of a girl growing up. When Riley’s islands of personality start to shake and crumble, you will feel more distress than during any Marvel movie.

Those films are about extraordinary humans, but they are not extraordinary. Pixar’s genius is in finding the extraordinary in the ordinary, and by doing so, it approaches something profound in rendering the tumultuous feelings of a kid on the verge of adolescence. Anyone who remember’s being Riley’s age will nod in recognition at the changes she goes through, and they may have a newfound appreciation and sympathy for that age, when surrounding adults might have expressed their impatience or lack of empathy.

“Inside Out’s” empathy, like its imagination, knows no limits. Don’t be surprised if, by the end of the film, the tears start to fall as you marvel at just how well Pixar has once again joined the two in such lovely harmony, the kind Joy and Sadness find by film’s end when they realize that the sun often shines brightest after it rains.

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