If you’ve ever wondered what it would be like to have Leslie Knope be the Parks Director of your mind, then look no further than Inside Out. In Pixar’s latest CGI adventure, they’re in good form with their usual level of quality crafting and creative storytelling, lending to a solid film about a sensitive subject — forgive the pun — feelings, and how they define our lives.
Amy Poehler was the perfect choice for our leader through this maze of a movie, Joy, who pretty much runs the ship inside young Riley’s mind, keeping all her other emotions, day dreams, personality quirks, and imaginary friends in check. Their job is to keep Riley on course and happy, making memories and living a healthy life. Without giving too much away, a sudden change in Riley’s life throws the emotions who regulate her mood for a loop, and everyone must come together to keep their girl together. Fear, Disgust, Anger, and Sadness are well voiced by Bill Hader, Mindy Kaling, Lewis Black, and Phyllis Smith, a bit of a who’s who of American comediennes. But, Joy’s character is a stand out as the most fully realized, echoing the enthusiasm that brought Amy Poehler’s Leslie Knope from Parks & Rec into the pop culture pantheon. She’s confident, strong willed, and has a strong tie to Riley that drives the film’s emotional plot — too many puns, they’re inescapable. It’s literally a story about the bond between a girl and her happiness, and how complicated that can be.
As a family film, it’s as safe as they come — nothing too scary for the little kids, but with enough depth for adults to enjoy themselves. That’s old hat for Pixar at this point, as their bread and butter for two decades now has been maintaining a careful balance to keep everyone in their audience happy. It has to be said that the word “safe” ran through my mind a few times watching the film. Maybe it’s just me, but I remember my animated films growing up as family friendly but also letting dramatic moments feel real enough that they left impressions on me for years to come. Pixar’s parent company, Disney, never seemed unwilling to traumatize a few kids if it meant a great film moment — looking at you, Mufassa’s death. Pixar was the same way. Watching Toy Story for the first time, Sid is still a scary little kid. The first scene from Up still makes people tear up thinking about the music alone. And, Inside Out has these moments — I heard sobbing in my theaters at times, so it was working for some people. Something held me back from actually feeling the feelings I was supposed to care about. Perhaps, ironically, I was enjoying too much of the logistical explanation of how the mind works, contemplating things Pixar was trying to say, already forming an analysis on the metaphorical theme of the film, leaving me intellectually engaged but delayed on the water works. I enjoyed all the creative gymnastics the story would go to in moving us through the mind — you’ll never think of the term “imaginary boyfriend” the same way after this film, for one. That’s where Inside Out shines brightest, when you see these Easter eggs of out of the box thinking that shows you that Pixar takes a bajillion years to make a movie because they care, and they are some of the best storytellers in animation. It can’t just be animating a few fun characters and getting celebrity voices to make a good movie. CGI removes the limits of the imagination, and in a film that takes you to Imagination Land, that has to show.
Inside Out feels important — every month there seems to be a new disaster that begs the question of what we’re doing to let people slip through the cracks of society, and there’s a constant discussion about how we should all do more to talk more about our mental health. Like Sesame Street and Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood, Inside Out wants kids to know that their emotions are part of who they are, and there are healthy and unhealthy ways they express them, but they are inherently part of you nonetheless, and serve a purpose. What’s a powerful thing for a kid to hear, and Pixar is exactly the studio with the skill to tell that story.
They did it with creativity, with kindness, and in a simple way that even the most complex of concepts like train of thought and long term memory were understandable as something not just happening inside a brain, but something happening within all of us. That being said, this is the second Pixar film (including Monster’s University) where I felt that everything was right, and fine, and technically well crafted — but I disconnected from the movie in a way that Pixar movies were always so good at achieving. Perhaps a gentle film about a pre-teen girl going through a rough time doesn’t much drama, and perhaps a film about a couple of monsters in college doesn’t need large stakes. I am simply hoping that Pixar isn’t watering down it’s boldness — as they are fully equipped to continue being the studio that shows us the beauty of CGI and all its storytelling abilities.
Still, Inside Out on its own merit is worth seeing, and it lingers with you afterwards, reminding us of our own defining memories, and urging us to consider the moments in life that form the foundation of who we are. Inside Out invites you into the theater for a short while just to remind you that the world is big and complicated, and we’re all just doing our best. Little girls grow up, sadness has its place, and the path to joy is a journey.