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Normally I don’t get personal in my reviews, but Peter Docter and Ronaldo Del Carmen’s Inside Out makes it impossible not to. By the end, I was looking back at my entire childhood. Ball games, video games, card games, pool parties, unwanted clowns, oversized Slurpees my parents quickly regretted letting me have, movies, so many movies, first friends, best friends, and no longer friends, girlfriends. This is a kids’ movie with an earned nostalgia for adults, one I bet hits parents a lot harder than not. Inside Out is an ultra-complicated, high concept, semi-science fiction, fantasy movie loaded to the brim with psychology, philosophy, art, and humanity. It’s all beautifully presented as simple and straightforwardly as possible, perfectly palatable for kids and playing a deeper, smarter game for adults. There’s a simple takeaway theme: all emotions are important, and maturing into knowing how to use them is a vital part of growing up. But, like all of Inside Out’s dualities, more elusive, intellectual ideas are beneath the surface. This is the classic Pixar formula that plays to all audiences, and they haven’t made a movie on this level in years. It’s not tops for me, Wall-E and Ratatouille are some of my favorites ever, but Inside Out is a gangbusters crowdpleaser with a soulful, hyper-intelligent touch.
Using a complex dual narrative, Inside Out follows an 11-year-old girl named Riley (Kaitlyn Dias) both inside and outside of her head, thus the strikingly literal title. Outside her head, Riley is a typical if particularly cute girl. Inside, however, is an abstractionist playground of warring, conflicting emotions that are fighting for control. What’s usually a summary of human behavior and cognition becomes a spellbinding story about a young girl’s (five) emotions, who are characters themselves living in a “headquarters” control room that sees what she sees. It’s a surreal setup, and the animated set is furnished with the stylings of abstract art. She’s forced to leave her happy homestead in Minnesota for a disappointing San Francisco (broccoli pizza? yuck!), a change she and her mom (Diane Lane) endure for dad’s (Kyle MacLachlan) business ventures.
Officially, Riley is the main character, but arguably Amy Poehler’s Joy is the lead, a glowing yellow Tinkerbell with hip blue hair. Second to Joy is Sadness (Phyllis Smith), looking like a miniature blue Velma from Scooby Doo. There’s also the valley girl inspired Disgust (Mindy Kaling), the red and fuming shirt-and-tie Anger (Lewis Black), and the bumbling purple-pink Fear (Bill Hader). Together—and only together—can they manage Riley’s tumultuous emotional state as a stranger in a strange land, but things go south when Joy and Sadness are separated from the other three. The clock is on and it’s a race against time through Ripley’s subconscious to get back. There’s another major character we meet later on, Bing Bong (Richard King), but I’ll say nothing other than he’s wonderful. An instant-classic character for Pixar and delightful in every way. Hint: He’s made of cotton candy and resembles an elephant.
Explaining more would become hopelessly convoluted and Inside Out works best as an experience anyway. It’s less of a story than a visceral think-piece on emotion and consciousness, densely packed with references to the abstract art of Picasso-Braque cubism, deconstructive thought, cognitive psychology theory, and popular culture, all doubling as clever storytelling as much as in-text citations. A reference to Vertigo’s movie poster is merely the second best homage to a classic movie. Kids won’t get this but they don’t have to. The simple surface story—that a girl is going through a hard time and the five main emotions have to save the day—is wildly fun. It’s also consistently laugh-out-loud funny, gorgeously animated, and has the envy of every Hollywood release: something for everyone. The voice cast is one of Pixar’s best groups yet, and experiencing Joy and Sadness go from the sprawling index of “long-term memory” into a dreamland that resembles an SNL sketch show is breathtakingly unusual for an American movie. It’s more Hayao Miyazaki than any other Pixar movie to date, with his castles in the sky and Howl’s moving castles and spirit-world bathhouses. After a nod to My Neighbor Totoro in Toy Story 3, the influence should hardly surprise.
But what makes Inside Out conceptually astonishing can sometimes make it a little clinical, a criticism raised towards Christopher Nolan’s somewhat similar dream-heist movie Inception. Like Nolan’s dream labyrinth, the mind of Riley is a highly complex system of rules, designated levels, and interconnections, an uncanny mind palace that perfectly personifies how the brain processes memory. The filmmakers clearly studied the science, and it shows; an old psychology professor would see Inside Out with glee. That comes at a cost though, effectively reducing the characters to mouthpieces for ideas, the plot into a running stream of symbols, and sometimes making it an impenetrable, cold affair. I love Inception, but for the first time I understand why some people feel that way.
Joy, Sadness, and all the rest aren’t exactly bad characters, it’s that they aren’t characters at all. They’re the divided shades of a real person, Riley, but since this is of course by design, making the obvious criticism of “weak writing” seem inapplicable. The three screenwriters made a radical move by pinning most of the drama and action on non-characters that by definition are unchangeable. What you have is learning more about them as they learn more about each other, and the payoffs lead to some truly eye watering moments of poignancy. But in between the big emotional pulls, and Inside Out has plenty that left me choked up, the film never calls full steam ahead. It’s when Joy and Sadness are in danger, whether running on collapsing train tracks or fleeing from a cave troll-sized clown, that the action feels passive. Joy is forever one note and shoots off happy-go-lucky catchphrases like she’s got an AK-47 made of rainbows and sunshine. Her character “arc” is pivotally important to the point of the piece, but she’s so pure and deliberately simple I had nothing to invest in, to care about. All of the “emotions’ are this way.
On some level, it’s a circus act of abstract ideas running from other abstract ideas, and the emotional distance between you and Joy, Sadness, Disgust, Anger, and Fear doesn’t freeze the adventure but it does leave it a little chilled. There is fun to be had, and Pete Docter and Ronaldo Del Carmen have such a firm grasp on the innovative screenplay that the constant cleverness and punchy direction never let Inside Out stop being a great time at the movies. This is an easy movie to recommend. And in fact, I’ll recommend it to you right now. See Inside Out. It’s the easiest sell of 2015 so far, an amazing Rubik’s Cube of ideas and drama that still needed a bit more solving.
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