At their best (The Incredibles, Monsters, Inc., Wall-E), Pixar movies are hilarious, emotional, clever, and insightful. At their worst (Cars, Cars 2), they’re cliché and obvious. And it is somewhere in between that we find Inside Out, which is funny, touching, and perceptive, but also sometimes rather obvious and narratively problematic.
In Inside Out, we learn that our basic emotions are controlled by five emotionally-specific humanoid entities who work inside our minds to control our feelings, and thus our thoughts and actions, while also looking after our memories. Enter Riley Anderson (voiced by newcomer Kaitlyn Dias), an eleven-year-old girl who had her great life in Minnesota upended when her family moved to San Francisco. When two of her emotions, Joy (Parks And Recreation‘s Amy Poehler) and Sadness (Phyllis Smith from The Office) accidentally get sucked into a tube that lands them in Riley’s long term memory, the kid is left at the mercy of Disgust (The Mindy Project‘s Mindy Kaling), Fear (Bill Hader from Paul), and Anger (The Daily Show‘s Lewis Black).
Co-directed by Pete Docter (Up, Monsters, Inc.) and Ronaldo Del Carmen, and written by Docter, Josh Cooley, and Meg LeFauve (who’s scripting the upcoming Captain Marvel movie), Inside Out starts off strong, and does a great job of fleshing out Riley as a real girl. Which is hardly surprising; Pixar have always been great at making believable little girls (see Boo in Monsters, Inc. and Violet in The Incredibles).
But it also helps that Inside Out is rather clever. Granted, “clever” could be Pixar’s motto, but Inside Out does a really smart job in showing how emotions are not one-dimensional. And I don’t mean the characters (though they’re multifaceted as well), but human emotions in general. In fact, the film reminded me of “Moaning Lisa,” an episode from the first season of The Simpsons in which Lisa goes through an emotional depression, and Marge keeps trying to cheer her up until she realizes she’s doing more harm than good. Most movies, especially mainstream ones, would never promote the idea that it’s okay to sometimes be sad, but Inside Out, like The Simpsons, does, and is the better for it.
In fact, I kind of think that — much like The Incredibles, Monsters, Inc., and Wall-E — Inside Out will resonate more with adults than with kids. Sure, the little ones will enjoy the bits of slapstick humor, and when Anger starts yelling and making faces, but it’s grown-ups, especially ones with the maturity to be aware of their own emotions, who will truly understand, relate, and thus find humor in this film.
Though it helps a lot that Inside Out has a really strong voice cast that, along with the aforementioned emotions and the excellent Dias, also includes Diane Lane (Man of Steel) as Riley’s mom and Kyle MacLachlan (Dune) as her dad. Though the best performances comes from aforementioned inner voices, especially Smith and Black.
Unfortunately, it’s when the adventure really begins for Riley’s emotions that the film starts to falter. After being sucked into her long-term memory, Joy and Sadness have to make their way through aspects of Riley’s mind, including Imaginationland (which is nothing like the one from South Park), Dreams, and the Subconscious. But while there are some very funny moments in this part — especially when they cut back to the command center and you see Disgust, Fear, and Anger trying to keep Riley happy — the plotting in this section goes on too long, and really starts to drag. Which is kind of an odd thing to say about a movie that’s only an hour and a half long.
Inside Out can also be rather predicable. Though this is far less of a problem because while many of the jokes are rather obvious, they’re still rather funny and often quite intelligent. Sure, most of the jokes that come when we meet the emotions of other people are straight out of Psych 101, but even if you majored in psychology you’ll still find yourself laughing out loud, even if it’s just at how they’re visualized.
Yet despite its plotting problem and other shortcomings, Inside Out is still an emotional and emotionally effective movie. So much so that when the film came to its climax, I totally knew what was going to happen, but still found myself tearing up.
While Inside Out may not rank among Pixar’s best, it’s still a fine and fun film, one that’s worth seeing, especially on the big screen, where you can really take in all the small but noticeable visual clues. Sure, it’s flawed, and sometimes contrived, but it’s also observant, laugh-out-loud-funny, and emotionally impactful. In other words, your average Pixar movie.
For a different perspective on Inside Out, check out what my pal Raymond had to say here.