|Joy takes the wheel in Inside Out, the new film from Pixar Animation Studios.|
Pixar Animation Studios has been around for 20 years and 15 films now. A new Pixar movie is reason enough to be excited as a few of the studio’s films belong in the conversation for the best of the last two decades – Wall-E, Up, and Toy Story 3 are firmly on this level. Even still, the description of Inside Out, which opened in theaters this week, had me practically vibrating with anticipation. Up helmer Pete Docter is back in the director’s chair for a look at life from inside the mind of a young girl.
This movie has been on my radar for years, and there are certain problems that come up when expectations run so high for so long, not the least of which is a genuinely great film falling short of those absurdly high expectations. For me, that is the case with Inside Out. I cannot look at it objectively. My mind has built up for years everything this movie could be, everything I wanted it to be, and though it is not those things, it is my fault, not the creators’.
Told from the point of view of a little girl’s emotions – Joy, Sadness, Anger, Disgust, and Fear – Inside Out is about the pain and poignancy of growing up and how embracing life means appreciating the highs and the lows. The film is bold, visionary, and on point. It will play like gangbusters to its target audience – which is children, by the way, regardless of the rapturous praise bestowed on the film by adult critics – and it communicates an essential life lesson creatively and simply.
The girl is Riley, whose family moves from rural Minnesota to San Francisco as her father tries to start a new company, presumably in the tech industry. She has to start a new school, a situation in which Fear (voiced by Bill Hader) is working overtime. She adjusts to a new house, which Disgust (Mindy Kaling) is all over. She resents being brought halfway across the country away from everything she has ever known, which is when Anger (Lewis Black) takes over. Through it all, Sadness (Phyllis Smith) touches everything it sees. Yet, the overriding emotion is Joy (Amy Poehler).
Inside Out is an ode to the bright-eyed and bushy-tailed optimism of youth and a plea to children everywhere to hold on to that outlook as long as they can. However, this is a knowing film, and the screenplay by Docter, Josh Cooley, and Meg LeFauve recognizes that growing up and getting just a little jaded is inevitable. Sadness is real, as are fear, anger, and disgust, and there is nothing wrong with feeling any of them. Each combines to make Riley who she is and to make us who we are.
The message is elegant, important, and not too far removed from similar themes in Up or Toy Story 3. Where the problem comes – and none of what I am about to say should distract from the fact that I think this is absolutely a must-see film – is in its plot, which revolves around Joy and Sadness trying to find their way back to the headquarters of Riley’s mind with the rest of the emotions.
As it progresses, the plot seems to exist less to develop the themes of the movie than to keep viewers’ attention while the themes develop around it. Joy and Sadness travel through Riley’s memories, imagination, and subconscious as Joy leads the way with an unending supply of hopefulness. In their journey, they meet Bing Bong (a sensational Richard Kind), Riley’s imaginary friend from childhood whom she no longer remembers, though he remembers her.
It is all great fun, there are a number of wonderful gags, and Bing Bong’s arc is deeply felt and emotionally satisfying. Yet, at its core, Inside Out just seems a little safe. The life of the mind is a massive amusement park with endless possibilities, particularly in animation, but Docter and company seem hesitant to go on the scariest rides.
There is an alternately delightful and suspenseful sequence in which our heroes travel through the Hall of Abstract Thought and begin taking on abstract shapes and dimensions themselves. Gorgeously rendered and brilliantly conceived, it is the kind of sequence the film could use more of, but I feel I am in the minority here and can understand why.
An existential journey through the labyrinth of the mind would be an impressive and daring feat of children’s filmmaking, but I cannot be sure many people would want to see it. Inside Out, as it is, is magnificently resonant and endlessly relatable. It argues that youth is a glorious time of innocence that is over far too soon. We watch as Riley’s memories literally fade away off the screen, and we are sad for her because we know what she is losing, but we are also sad for ourselves and the things we have lost and cannot recall.
The credits end with a simple, if impossible, plea from the filmmakers: “Dedicated to our children. Don’t grow up. Ever.” Of course, we all must grow up and grow old, but the spirit of the message is pure. If youth is joy, then it cannot hurt to keep joy at the wheel as long as we can. Because if we do, then no matter the destination, we are in for one amazing ride.
See it? Yes.