A fabulous conceit goes a long way in Inside Out, Disney Pixar’s latest imaginative foray into smart and savvy all-ages entertainment.
Science mixes with whimsy, as the inner-workings of the mind are illustrated in an explosion of sight and sound. Inside Out follows Riley, a young girl whose fun-filled and safe life is altered when her father gets a new job in San Francisco, a drastic change that sends her emotions into a frenzy.
Five emotions, to be specific. Joy, Sadness, Anger, Fear, and Disgust are her anthropomorphized emotions, given distinct looks and voices, as they run a control hub of the Riley’s mind. This is how everyone’s brain works, according to the film, as the quintet of hilarious personalities work together to protect their host, holding on to those cherished memories while embracing brand new ones.
This tender and creative tale written and directed by Pete Docter and Ronaldo Del Carmen is inspired in part by Docter’s relationship with his daughter, speaking to the ways in which fathers (and parents) look to stay connected with their children as they start to grow up and perhaps break free of their carefree innocence.
Riley isn’t going into some anti-establishment, dark brooding phase; it’s more nuanced than that. Facing new a school, a strange city (with broccoli pizza!) and being away from her best friend, Riley is full of confusion and concern. It doesn’t help either that something strange is going on with her emotions.
That’s because Sadness (Phyllis Smith) seems to be more powerful than usual. Her simple blue touch turns happy memories to ones filled with tears, leaving Joy (Amy Poehler) to figure out what’s going on. These two polar emotions don’t necessarily butt heads – they aren’t enemies, but they are in fact opposites, and what really sets the film in motion is a plot that speaks to how we as human learn to cope with the shared coexistence of these two emotions.
An incident at the control room sends Joy and Sadness in exile, leaving them far from home at time when Riley is most vulnerable. That leaves Anger (Lewis Black), Fear (Bill Hader), and Disgust (Mindy Kaling) in control, with hilarious results, while Joy and Sadness navigate a maze of the mind back to command center before Riley lets go of her fondest memories.
What unravels is something beautiful and sweet, an overt metaphor expertly handled, filled with quips both juvenile and smart (a remark about opinions and facts is riotous). It’s surely fun, but to say it’s a joy would be mishandling the message; Joy is the leader of the group, yes, but each emotion is important. It’s not about one prevailing feeling, but the ability to balance them all in a healthy manner.
Inside Out took some five years to see through from beginning to end, and it is evident the care and thought that went in. The characters lively and infectious (and marketable), and like Pixar’s pinnacle Toy Story, the problem isn’t an actual villain, but the inevitable changing nature of life itself.