Introduction: Pixar has been the front-runner of some of the best animated movies in recent years, and it seems like with each film they up the ante by improving their animation style and storytelling techniques. I couldn’t escape the fact that Inside Out seemed to be a huge hit in the summer of 2015 yet I missed seeing it in theaters. But recently I decided to sit down to see what all of the acclaim was about. Be aware – some spoilers may be present throughout.
The Story: Inside Out (2015) introduces viewers to the anthropomorphized emotions of Joy, Anger, Disgust, Fear, and Sadness who reside inside the head of an eleven-year-old girl named Riley. From day one, Joy acts as the ringleader and is determined to keep Riley a happy child or at least looking on the bright side of life. But in truth, each one of the emotions serves a critical role save for Sadness, whom no one seems sure what her purpose is. In time, Riley and her parents move from Minnesota to California, and Joy and her fellow feelings do their best to contend with Riley’s new surroundings. New memories are forged, sustaining Riley’s various mental islands of personality, from her love for hockey to her love for her family. But the most important memories are core memories that form Riley’s mental and emotional bedrock. These core memories are, as a rule, joyful recollections, but when Sadness intervenes at a rather inappropriate moment and inadvertently creates a sad core memory, Joy tries to retrieve the memory before it can become permanent. But their efforts lead only to an emotional breakdown and Joy and Sadness become lost in the vast expanse of Riley’s mind. No longer in control, Joy must strive to return to headquarters where she can put Riley right again.
My Take: First, allow me to sum up my sentiments about this movie in order of feels…
So in summation, Inside Out is pretty much an emotional roller coaster that is totally worth the ride. And I loved every second of it!
Upfront, the concept for the film is innovative and unique. The story’s focus is solely on the emotional processes of a pre-teen girl – the only difference is that we see what’s going on in her life from the emotions’ point of view, which adds a layer of creativity that serves the film well. Likewise, each emotion has its own personality that holds true to his or her inherent natures: Joy is perpetually upbeat, Sadness is gloomy and pessimistic, Disgust is smart but snobbish, Anger is quick-tempered, and Fear is skittish. Those characterizations might not hold any surprises but these characters’ chemistry really plays off of and balances each other out, resulting in organic character dynamics and moments of enjoyable comedy.
The world-building here is also mind-boggling in its creative complexity. For me, movies that have a lot of world-building tend to suffer from too much infodumping. But not so with Inside Out. The way Riley’s mind is shown to be visually constructed and the way it operates within the story’s world is the epitome of smart, clever, and cleanly executed cinematic world-building. I don’t want to share too much about it because the way the movie presents it is really worth seeing for yourself. But I will say that Pixar managed to take an abstract subject – the process of thought and emotion – and made it concrete, colorful, and extremely creative.
The cast is spot on and the voice actors all seem to gel with their respective characters. Joy is voiced by Amy Poehler, whose usual brand of comedy I’m not a fan of. But her portrayal of gentle, happy-go-lucky Joy is perfect, balanced with just the right amount of sweetness and wisdom so Joy doesn’t become too saccharine nor does she turn into a know-it-all. Two former stars of NBC’s The Office also lend their voice talents here as Sadness is played by Phyllis Smith and Disgust is played by Mindy Kaling, and both ladies do a wonderful job. Smith’s Sadness is likable, despite her constant moroseness, but she’s not a comedic foil who always serves as the butt of the film’s jokes. Sadness is actually a key character for a good reason, one of which I can’t discuss as it counts as a spoiler, but Smith does her character justice with a gentle touch of humor to keep Sadness from being too depressing. Kaling’s Disgust is also a fun character as she possesses a slightly snobbish side yet avoids being isolating. Bill Heder and Lewis Black round out the cast as Fear and Anger, respectively, and clearly had a blast playing their characters.
The comedic timing among all five of the emotions is perfect as it’s derived from their conflicting personalities as opposed to gimmicky humor or pop culture references. In fact, some of the humor is based on the bizarre ways our brains and minds can hold onto things and perceive the world. (By way of example, Joy and Sadness, at one point, venture through Abstract Thought – this moment was so clever and hilarious that it was a standout scene for me!)
Visually, Inside Out is stunning. It’s bright and colorful but isn’t garishly cartoon-like. Instead, what we’re treated to is a bright palette of living colors yet they’re delivered with a soft touch. The characters also get star treatment as each one has a unique look to match their inherent personalities yet you’d swear these animated folks sported real clothing and hair. Joy and Sadness, in particular, have wonderful character designs as Sadness looks like a living rag doll and Joy emits a constant aura of soft golden light. The other emotions look like they could be real and possess a very touchable quality to their design. In the same way, the various external locales in this movie are all expertly crafted. Yet the level of creativity and sheer size and scope of Riley’s mind environment are breath-taking, like a picture book coming to vibrant life.
Lastly, it wouldn’t be a Pixar film without a touching, engaging story. Pixar, to its credit, doesn’t pander to its audience as its movies aren’t the cinematic equivalent of waving keys in front of a baby’s face, meaning they don’t entertain purely for the sake of entertaining. They have a message to share but do so in a gentle way that doesn’t cram a moral down audience’s throats nor treat younger audience members like dunderheads. The fact Inside Out even focuses on the inner emotional workings of a young girl’s mind is commendable because it’s a topic most people might assume is too complex for young viewers (which is what I suspect contributed to the film’s rather surprising PG rating). Not to mention the story’s core is about how all of our emotions work together, even the seemingly negative ones. Thus, this isn’t a black-and-white morality tale and the topics here are presented in such a way so nearly anyone can grasp them, including younger viewers (though perhaps not the absolute youngest).
Concerning our lead human character, Riley is presented as an average child who has a stable home, two loving parents, and who enjoys her hobbies. However, she has to contend with moving to a new town, starting a new school, making new friends, and enduring new pressures. Her emotional withdraw, then, is tough to watch yet it’s relatable and isn’t angsty for the sake of being angsty. On the flip side, her parents try to discern what is troubling her and, while they’re not perfect, they are good parents who try to do what’s best for Riley and they truly do love and care for her. The family dynamic here is organic and gentle and avoids becoming too morose nor too goody-goody. In the end, Riley’s journey – as well as the journey her emotions take – will bring tears to your eyes in a very good way.
Content Breakdown: Inside Out was given a PG rating but my assessment of its content is as follows:
Language – None. Anger muses over whether or not to use some swear words (without naming what they are) but never does.
Violence – None. There are some perilous moments as Joy and Sadness try to make their way back to headquarters, including a quick trip into Riley’s subconscious where “scary” things reside, such as a large piece of broccoli and a clown, but nothing is ever violent or overtly scary. Elsewhere, some of Riley’s memories fade over time and one such memory “dies,” but this moment is more emotional than frightening.
Sexual Material – None. Riley’s mind, at one point, conjures up an image of a generic boy pop idol who insists he would “die” for her. Elsewhere, one woman’s emotions recall a daydream of a swoon-worthy Brazilian pilot but this is only done for comedic effect.
Thematic Elements – The topic of how Sadness “taints” memories is a central theme. For exceptionally young children, this concept might be difficult to understand as sadness, to them, might be perceived as a negative experience. This, along with the film’s exploration of the purpose and function of memory and emotions, is probably why the film garnered its rating more so than any content issues.
Recommended Audiences: In my opinion, I believe Inside Out stacks up this way (note that just because something isn’t recommended for a certain age group doesn’t make it “bad”):
Children – Recommended, but probably only for the oldest of children (over age 6) as the film doesn’t present a black-and-white view of emotions (e.g. sadness is always a negative emotion, joy is always a positive emotion, etc.), which might not be fully grasped or appreciated by extremely young children. This, more than anything else, is why I sense the film was given a PG rating.
Older Children & Teens – Recommended, as there is probably many things this age group can relate to as far as Riley’s journey is concerned. Not to mention this is one animated movie that doesn’t come across as “kids only” neither in its story nor its design.
Young Adults & Adults – Recommended, especially for fans of Pixar as this installment doesn’t disappoint. In the same way, the story is sure to resonate with older audiences who will be able to understand and appreciate the film’s smart and warm-hearted depiction of memory and emotion and the message it teaches about the struggles and joys of childhood.
Inside Out is a joy to watch (no pun intended), not only as a well-crafted and masterfully designed film, but also as a solid, unique, gentle story that relates two journeys – the journey of a young girl trying to handle change in her life and the journey of her emotions who are along for the ride. Rest assured, it’s a smooth ride with plenty of comedic twists, exciting turns, and happy destinations.