Inner Space: Inside Out

06/19/2015 9:00 AM |
photo courtesy of Disney/Pixar

Inside Out
Directed by Pete Docter
Opens June 19

Not every great Pixar movie is about parenting. In fact, several of the movies in their most astonishing run (that would be 2007-2010, though it has some competition) aren’t about parenting at all: Wall-E is about environmental adaptation, Ratatouille is about the nurturing of creativity, and Up is basically about how to live your life. But Monsters, Inc., The Incredibles, Finding Nemo, Brave, and the Toy Story trilogy all have parenting allegories of one sort or another, so it’s not surprising that Pixar’s don’t-call-it-a-comeback Inside Out would return to that thematic ground. But it gets there from a wonderfully inventive and literally internal point of view: much of the movie takes place inside the head of an eleven-year-old girl.

That girl, named Riley, is a character in the movie, but not necessarily the main one: that would be Joy (Amy Poehler), the embodiment of her eponymous emotion, and leader of four other person-shaped but slightly fuzzy little people at Riley’s Mind control room. They all look like new carpet made with digital paint, and the group includes Fear (Bill Hader), Disgust (Mindy Kaling), Anger (Lewis Black, obviously), and Sadness (Phyllis Smith, also known as Phyllis from The Office). Joy maintains a Leslie Knope-like stranglehold of mandatory optimism at the controls, but when Riley and her parents move from Minnesota to San Francisco, leaving behind her friends, routines, and hockey team, the home office gets thrown into a tizzy, allowing everyone, especially Sadness, a little more say in how Riley feels. When some precious core memories get knocked loose, Joy and Sadness pursue them and wind up marooned in other, more remote parts of Riley’s head. They must then attempt to get back to the control room before their host girl’s external life is changed forever, as the movie occasionally cuts to Riley’s real-world struggles.

It’s difficult to describe what the movie’s dominant internal action entails, because the conceptual and visual imagination on display is both routine (in the sense that Pixar has managed such wonders in the past) and staggering (in the sense that they’ve rarely gone this abstract, an ambitious undertaking even for America’s best animation studio). After a couple of movies that felt a little like Minor Pixar, Inside Out swings for the fences repeatedly, from its trademark emotional sensitivity to its equally trademark bang-up gag-writing. The latter has two levels of cleverness: the screenplay keeps coming up with fertile playgrounds for accompanying gags, like the studio-style lot where dreams are composed, which of course includes posters for popular past productions like Something Is Chasing Me. Animated features famously take years to produce and perfect, belied by the freedoms of this one’s visual elasticity (there’s a great sequence when Joy and Sadness tumble into the abstract thought portion of Riley’s brain) and verbal acuity. It’s like watching a circus routine that feels both improvised and tightly choreographed–chased by knowing evocations of how it feels to feel (“Crying helps me slow down and obsess over life’s problems,” Sadness notes).

I wish Inside Out was a little less archetype-dependent; a brief glimpse into Riley’s parents’ heads reveal some tired husband-and-wife gags straight out of a comic strip or possibly a lesser Dave Barry essay (although a revival of this gag later in the movie explodes with invention in that familiar Pixar way). If it feels more driven by the perspective of a parent than the actual mind of a child, though, the movie manages the feat–not remotely small–of addressing the complexities of human emotion, rather than lamenting about the irrational changes that tweens and teens undergo. In other words, Joy may seem stronger and more important than the lethargic, draggy Sadness, but they need each other, a relationship made more human and less preachy by Poehler and Smith’s voice performances. Apart from the occasional cliché-ridden truisms, there’s real and sometimes difficult truths at the core of Inside Out, part of another Pixar braintrust signature: not talking down to kids or their parents. Even a minor Pixar project like Monsters University taught the rare lesson that sometimes really wanting something isn’t going to make you great at it, and it’s equally unusual to hear American cartoons (scored as they often are with the likes of “Happy” and affixed as they often are with movie-ending dance parties) espousing the very human virtues of experiencing sadness. Brains and trust indeed.