It’s safe to say Pixar’s emotional pull has been muted since 2010. Following their fantastic (one-time) trilogy capper Toy Story 3, preceding efforts like Cars 2, Brave and Monsters University didn’t nearly capture the same heights Wall-E and Up invigorated just a few years prior. But with Inside Out, the company’s 15th feature, the emotions are fully on display again — both literally and figuratively — as they explore the inner mechanisms of the human emotive state to touching, potent results.
Just as young Minneapolis girl Riley (voiced by Kaitlyn Dias) comes into this world, so too do her emotional beings, Joy (voiced by Amy Poehler), Disgust (voiced by Mindy Kaling), Fear (voiced by Bill Hader), Anger (voiced by Lewis Black) and Sadness (voiced by Phyllis Smith), come into fruition. Despite their different personalities, they’ve work together to help Riley through her day-to-day life, debating how to handle oddities like broccoli or making sure she excels at hockey. This is all managed through a series of crystal ball-like objects, which contain the various memories Riley has in her subconscious. Included in these are a select few Core Memories stored safely in the center of their workspace.
But they are all thrown for quite a loop when Riley’s parents (voiced by Diane Lane and Kyle MacLachlan) announce the family’s moving to San Francisco. The gang was already dealing with troubles when they found Sadness could change once joyful memories into depressing ones, but in their new surroundings their insecurities are taken into hyper-drive. Due to a mishap during Riley’s first day at her new school, Sadness and Riley are propelled outside the central office with the Core Memories in hand, and with Joy the ringleader of Riley’s well-being, it’s up to her and Sadness to get back to the base before their mainframe is destroyed as they remember it.
Believe me when I say the eventual film's story is far more simplistic than my description makes it seem. And it’s a tribute to Pixar’s storytelling genius that they can make something which very well could have been far too subjective and complicated to work resonate on such a universal level. A triumphant in innovation for mainstream storytelling, director Pete Doctor’s movie is rich in themes and heart, but it’s also quite delightful in its levity. Much like Riley herself, Inside Out is a tender, compassionate and, yes, emotionally honest work of entertainment, gracefully executing mature themes with childlike sensibilities with gentle ease.
And much like the Cars movies, it’s best to not over-think the logistics of its universe. Don’t take that as an offense to the film’s intelligence, but rather noting on how the complexity of this nine-to-five mind office space doesn’t quite make as much sense as, say, Monsters Inc. The inventiveness of this world is so freely imaginative and creative that it’s a wonder Inside Out is so well concentrated as it is with its characters — especially considering they are reduced, literally, to one spiritual trait. It’s also fairly remarkable just how much growth our two leads, Sadness and Joy, develop throughout the movie despite being confined by these limitations.
Thanks to a clear and imperative motive, there’s always a sense of urgency in Inside Out, but the film is also never afraid to slow down enough to focus on their arcs. This especially in relation to Riley’s well-being, which takes the complications and maturity of growing up and makes them simple yet elegant enough for every one in the family to understand and enjoy. But beyond their fantastic developments, each character is memorable, engaging, funny and likable in their individual little ways. They also interact productively and hearty with one another, and this makes their little tics all the more rewarding.
While Joy is naturally the most engaging as the primary character of this unusual tale, it’s Anger who really steals the show. Giving the funniest material and having Black boost the role with his typically brilliant embittered delivery, every one of his moments earns a hearty laugh, and it’s a shame they couldn’t work him into the story more. Also, what’s most striking about this Pixar movie are the character designs, as this is most readily cartoonish movie they've made maybe ever. Their looks and movements harken back to old Looney Tunes from the ‘40s and ‘50s, and works primarily because there’s really no firm logic for what can happen inside this mind-made universe. This lets the animators play like they haven’t before, and handily provides some of the best physical comedy the Disney-owned company’s made in years.
Part of what makes Inside Out so riveting is not knowing where it will go, even if the story follows the typical mechanics of traditional storytelling. This, much like the Toy Story movies or any of Pixar’s finest before it, is what makes this latest effort so special. Doctor’s movie another exceptional, heartfelt, vibrant and — yes, I’ll say it once more — genuinely emotional effort from the animation studio, and proves once again the power of original storytelling is live and well not only in Hollywood but in the Emeryville cartoon house. As if it needs to be said one more time, here I go: the Pixar magic’s back and that’s more than enough reason for joy.