Movie Review: “Inside Out”

Amy Poehler, Phyllis Smith, Mindy Kaling, Bill Hader, Lewis Black, Richard Kind, Diane Lane, Kyle MacLachlan
Pete Docter & Ronaldo Del Carmen

“Inside Out” has a sweet, entertaining story at its core, but it requires one of the characters to act like a complete idiot in order to set it into motion, and no matter how enjoyable the rest of the movie may be – and thankfully, it is – those acts will linger in the back of your mind, which, come to think of it, the filmmakers might find ironically funny. It’s not, though; it’s a shortcut, the kind of thing Pixar steadfastly avoided in their storytelling for well over a decade, and now that they have been getting their asses kicked by their peers at Disney Animation (“Frozen,” “Wreck-It Ralph,” “Big Hero 6”) for the last three years, you’d think that they would come up with a better story than this. And to be fair, they came up with a good concept; it just has a bad setup.

As Riley Anderson (Kaitlyn Dias) is born, we see her emotions being “born,” as it were, in her head. The first two, as one might imagine, are Joy (Amy Poehler) and Sadness (Phyllis Smith), but they are soon joined by Fear (Bill Hader), Anger (Lewis Black, in the part he was born to play), and Disgust (Mindy Kaling). Most of the time, Joy is in charge of Riley’s emotions because Riley lives a charmed life, but when Riley’s father moves the family from Minnesota to San Francisco for a work opportunity, Riley’s emotions are all out of whack, a problem that is worsened when Sadness continues to taint core memories so that they turn from happy ones to sad ones in Riley’s mind. In her attempt to stop this from happening, Joy tries to take control of the situation, but in the process, she and Sadness accidentally get transferred to Riley’s long-term memory and far away from the control panel, leaving Fear, Anger and Disgust in charge. Riley becomes an emotional wreck, and the longer Joy is away, the worse things get.

So now you know what the problem is: Sadness. She starts ruining perfectly good memories by touching them, and even after she learns what the consequences are when she does that, she does it again and again. The five emotions are voiced by adults and almost always act like adults, but for the sake of getting the story to the next level, they decide to make Sadness start acting like a cat, which, damn it, is something else the filmmakers might find ironically funny. Once again, it’s not, though.

Once the story gets past its “For God’s sake, would you please stop doing the stupid thing?” setup, it becomes wildly creative, and drops a fair amount of science in the process in terms of how the brain stores information. The movie delves into how important information is often lost because it isn’t retrieved often enough, it emphasizes the importance of an active imagination, but the best part is when Joy and Sadness experience the abstract thinking part of the brain. That sequence is one of the most brilliant things Pixar has ever done.

The one thing the movie absolutely nails is the landing, which stresses the importance of being in touch with all of your emotions for the sake of mental health. (And definitely stay for the credits, as they offer amusing insight into the minds of people, and non-people, outside of Riley’s family.) Everyone wants to always be joyful, but that simply isn’t the case in life; there will be times when it’s all right to be scared, or angry, or sad, and people should embrace those moments, rather than deny them. That’s an important message for people of all ages, but particularly tween kids like Riley.

The ads for “Inside Out” are calling it the best Pixar film since “Up,” which is coincidentally the last Pixar film directed by the same man who directed “Inside Out” (Pete Docter). That might be the reason people are saying that, but it’s not true. In fact, it’s the best Pixar film since “Toy Story 3,” which is a really nice way of saying that it’s a two-run double in the corner from a studio that, until recently, had hit nothing but home runs. It’s good, often great, but Pixar has shown us that they can do better.