We’ve all heard them at some point or another, those voices inside our head telling us what to do or how to feel. One of the big revelations in Inside Out, the 15th (and most daring) feature film from Pixar Animation Studios, is that those voices have bodies and heads. They’re called emotions, and they have simple, self-explanatory names: Joy (voiced by Amy Poehler), Sadness (Phyllis Smith), Fear (Bill Hader), Anger (Lewis Black) and Disgust (Mindy Kaling).
Yes, you’ve met them before in your life, most of them at least once every day. But director Pete Docter (Up), who spent five years developing this wildly ambitious picture and also co-wrote the script, does more than tell you what you already know. Inside Out visualizes abstract things — memories, instincts, feelings — in a riot of colors and shapes and objects that isn’t only visually dazzling but also intellectually stimulating. Here is an English-language animated film influenced as much by Luis Buñuel and Carl Jung as Walt Disney.
Co-directed by Ronnie Del Carmen, Inside Out takes place primarily inside the head of 11-year-old Riley, who moves with her parents from Minnesota to San Francisco and falls into a bit of a funk, not necessarily because she misses her friends or her school but because Sadness touched one of the large marbles that form her “core memory,” turning it from bright orange (happy) to sad (blue). What’s worse, a chain reaction ensues that starts to destroy the girl’s “Islands of Identity” — friendship, family, goofball — and as each one crumbles, her depression worsens.
This might sound awfully serious, but the wonder of Inside Out is how it turns what should be an unfilmable concept into a Pixar-style adventure, replete with everything the brand name implies. Almost every scene contains at least two simultaneous gags, one visual, the other verbal (has there ever been another cartoon aimed at children that contained a shout-out to Chinatown?) Casting was particularly critical to Inside Out, because the voices of the actors needed to embody the emotions of their respective characters. Poehler and Smith (who played Phyllis on TV’s The Office) get the bulk of screen time, and although Poehler’s sing-song Joy runs the show inside Riley’s head, Smith’s droopy vocal inflections almost steal the movie. Yes, Sadness is a drag. But she’s adorable, too.
As Fear, Anger and Disgust, Hader, Black and Kaling have less to do, because much as in real life, those emotions aren’t as primal or active. But everyone gets at least one big moment (Kaling kills Riley’s first encounter with broccoli pizza), and when the film starts to zoom inside the minds of other characters, such as Riley’s parents, the whoa-factor is quadrupled. Every conceivable facet of this outlandish idea has been carefully considered and thought out, and you watch the movie tingling with admiration at the depth of the film’s creativity and imagination.
If Inside Out doesn’t stack up with the best Pixar movies (Wall-E, Finding Nemo, Toy Story), that’s because there’s less plot here than usual, and even at a lean 95 minutes, the movie starts to drag before it ends. The consequences of what’s happening inside Riley’s head aren’t strong enough; the stakes are too thin. Intellectually, the film is a jawdropper, but ironically, for a story about emotions, the picture is curiously distant. There are no big lessons to be learned in Inside Out, no morals to the fable, just an outpouring of artistry of an exceedingly high caliber and a keen understanding of human nature. And although you’re not left craving more, the end credits, which contain some of the best bits in the entire film, prove just how stuffed with ideas Inside Out is. Kids will be engaged, but it’s the older viewers — people who have lived and felt a little longer than 11-year-olds — who will most appreciate this marvelous, ingenious work of art.
Voices: Amy Poehler, Phyllis Smith, Bill Hader, Lewis Black, Mindy Kaling, Kaitlyn Dias, Diane Lane, Kyle MacLachlan, Richard Kind.
Director: Pete Docter.
Co-director: Ronnie Del Carmen.
Screenwriters: Pete Docter, Meg LeFauve, Josh Cooley
A Walt Disney Studios/Pixar Animation release. Running time: 95 minutes. Mild thematic material. Playing at area theaters.