It doesn’t take long whilst watching Inside Out, Pixar’s true return to form following a lacklustre trio of films in Cars 2, Brave, and Monsters University, to realise why it took the venerable animation studio five years to produce another masterpiece after Toy Story 3. This is a film so packed with brilliant ideas and imagination that half a decade feels like a modest development time. At its core, it’s a film about growing up, but it explores so much more, from the necessity of sadness to how our very personalities are shaped. These are all heavy themes, and would be enough to fill an entire film on their own, but with a superb lightness of touch and some of the most inventive visuals Pixar has ever produced, Inside Out is an accessible and utterly essential piece of family entertainment.
The main conceit of the film is that every human being (and even some animals) has five core emotions – Joy, Sadness, Anger, Disgust, and Fear – governing how they act and feel. Each of these emotions has a distinct personality and role in the control room of the brain, with lead human Riley Anderson (Kaitlyn Dias), an 11 year old girl, governed mainly by Joy (Amy Poehler). However, her move from her home in Minnesota to San Francisco messes up the balance in her head, and Joy and Sadness (Phyllis Smith) manage to get locked out of the control room, leaving Riley unable to really feel anything. Controlled now entirely by Anger, Disgust, and Fear, she falls out with her parents and starts losing her personality, a story that will be familiar to anyone who’s ever met or been a teenager. The main drive of the film is the quest of Joy and Sadness to get back to the control room before Riley loses herself completely.
Along the way, co-writers/directors Pete Docter and Ronaldo del Carmen show us, in spectacular style, the inner workings of the mind, from a literal Train of Thought to the brain employees who manage memory. If you’ve ever wondered why you get a song you hate stuck in your head, Inside Out explains it with a hilarious running gag. We expect the best from Pixar animators, but the work here goes above and beyond, with vibrant colours, incredibly detailed and original environments, and even a sequence where they dare to visually express abstract thought. Little details, such as Riley’s mum and dad’s minds having Sadness and Anger respectively at the helm of the control room, or how Joy becomes steadily more fragile looking as the stakes are heightened, complete the creation of Pixar’s most excitingly original world since Monsters Inc.
Docter and del Carmen also prove that Pixar is still more than capable of delivering devastating emotional beats. Whilst Inside Out may not have quite the raw heart-rending heft of Toy Story 3 (it comes very close though), it’s still hugely affecting. Topped off with the deep psychological insights, it may seem that the film is a bit too heavy for the kids it is ostensibly aimed at, but that’s far from the case. There’s plenty here for them (as well as the adults, of course) to love, from the French Fry Forest in Imagination Land to the Dream Production Studios to Riley’s old imaginary friend Bing Bong (Richard Kind, managing to be both lovable and tragic with every line). Bing Bong is a wonderful creation, with a body of candyfloss and the features of an elephant/cat/dolphin, believably born from the imagination of a child.
Amy Poehler and Phyllis Smith are perfectly suited to their roles as Joy and Sadness – you can really see both actresses in their animated counterparts – and are well supported by the rest of the cast, eschewing typically starry names for TV funny people. Mindy Kaling and Lewis Black are great as Disgust and Anger, although Bill Hader feels slightly wasted as Fear, whose best moments are almost all visual gags.
One of the aspects of Inside Out that makes it particularly special is that it is a fundamentally ordinary story. Almost everyone goes through the exact same journey as Riley, so the originality of the film is all the more impressive, and the fact that these experiences are so universal makes investing in the story incredibly easy. Yet this is also a deeply personal tale for Docter, who made the film partly to better understand the growing pains of his own daughter, and this extra layer of reality shines through in the key emotional sequences, likely to reduce most parents to tears.
All these elements are contained in a typically exciting Pixar adventure, which includes an eventful ride on the Train of Thought, breaking into the dream production studios, and getting lost in the cavern of discarded memories. The amount of ideas and events packed coherently into just 94 minutes is simply staggering. Bringing to mind the very best of Pixar, with the beautiful world-building of Monsters Inc and Wall-E, emotional beats of Toy Story, and brilliant writing and animation to appeal to all ages, Inside Out happily enters the highest levels of the studio’s pantheon.