For anyone who experienced mood swings in their youth, we now have an explanation – there was a tiny, Tinkerbell-looking Amy Poehler in your head. Either that or you were watching Inside Out, a movie meticulously designed to make the audience feel all emotions, from joy to sadness, within its short run time. Handling the delicate issue of an 11-year-old girl experiencing depression after moving from her childhood home, Pixar juggles its most serious premise yet with grace and imagination. If Monsters University and Cars 2 were sadness, then Inside Out is joy.
Though it never explicitly drops the d-word, Riley (voiced by Kaitlyn Dias) falls into depression after a move for her father’s work. Little does she know, the depression is actually caused by the 5 brightly-colored, fuzzy-looking monsters in her head representing core emotions Joy, Sadness, Fear, Anger, and Disgust.
Operating Riley’s brain with mechanical controls resembling a cockpit, the personified emotions are in charge of making sure Riley’s memories (represented by glass spheres that roll into the center of the room when they happen) are associated with her main emotion, Joy (voiced by Poehler). But soon Sadness (Phyllis Smith) accidentally taints her memories with negative emotion, and ends up getting herself and Joy stranded outside the control room – in the complex world of Riley’s mind. Without Joy or Sadness to give her life balance, Riley starts to lose personality traits important to her, and the two emotions must travel through her hilariously literal mind to save her.
The film is eye-popping from the start, and its vibrant, saturated colors serve as a stark distraction from the film’s more serious story. Pixar has found a clever way to represent Riley’s mind – her core memories (childhood-forming experiences like friendships and her love of hockey) are represented by floating islands that crumble as the story progresses. The emotions themselves are a spectacle – they’re made from some sort of pixelated texture that keeps the eye intrigued, and Joy in particular is a bioluminescent CGI treat.
They’re not only good-looking – they’re funny, too. Poehler sets the tone for the film, literally bringing joy to every scene. Smith was perfectly cast as Sadness, and backup emotions Fear, Anger and Disgust (Bill Hader, Lewis Black and Mindy Kaling respectively) serve as excellent second bananas who struggle to keep Riley functioning while Joy is away.
Like a lost train of thought, though, the film does get muddled in the middle. Perhaps Pixar wanted to explore as much as possible with their innovative premise that the narrative loses focus – for a while, Joy and Sadness are simply going through the motions as they encounter random, albeit entertaining aspects of Riley’s mind (a forgotten imaginary friend named Bing Bong, for instance). While fun, the middle section of the movie is limited by lack of story – the writers throw a few ideas, such as representing dreams like a Hollywood studio, ultimately sectioning off a huge chunk of the script to tackle plot points of little impact to the overall story.
The train gets back on track, however, for the final act, which serves as one of the studio’s most nuanced emotional climaxes. There’s a refreshing maturity to the film that’s hard to find in animation. Themes of growing up and exiting childhood haven’t been addressed this well since Toy Story 3, and not as creatively, well, ever. Pixar knew a movie about emotions would have complete manipulation over ours. How meta.