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It's All in Your Mind

Walt Disney Studios
 94 Minutes
Rated: PG
Directed by: Pete Docter
Starring: Amy Poheler, Phyllis Smith, Bill Hader 
Inside Out

The best Pixar films, and, indeed, all the best Disney films, have touched the emotions, often leaving viewers with mixed feelings of joy and sadness. So, it’s somewhat fitting that in its latest effort, Pixar eliminates all the middle men and lets the audience see and react directly to Joy, Sadness, and three of their friends to boot: Fear, Anger, and Disgust. For the highly imaginative Inside Out is largely set inside the head of an 11-year-old girl whose actions are guided by the personified versions of those very emotions.


Inside Out represents the most imaginative concept Pixar has ever had for a movie, and that’s high praise, considering that their previous efforts have included Toy Story and Monsters, Inc. And concepts this high are likely to sail well over the heads of the typical ten-year-olds who adore everything Disney. Fortunately for them, the mental characters represent some of Pixar’s best visual animated creations.


Inside Out’s script, which was co-written by director Pete Docter, creates a vast industrial complex that forms the mind of young Riley (Kaitlyn Dias). The five emotions reside in Headquarters, a factory control room that looks like it was part of NASA’s Mission Control in the 1960s. They take turns handling the control panel, which influences Riley’s actions. Since Riley is usually a happy child when the film begins, Joy (Amy Poehler), a pixieish sprite, is usually in control in Headquarters.


Joy gets help from Anger (Lewis Black), who looks like SpongeBob soaked up a tub of ketchup, Disgust (Mindy Kaling), a green Valley Girl, and Fear (Bill Hader), a skinny guy with bulging eyes who could be a cousin of Beaker from the Muppets. The emotion that Joy tries to keep out of the way is the frumpish Sadness (Phyllis Smith), who is prone to messing things up when she tries to help. Headquarters manufactures Riley’s memories, which show up as glowing globes whenever she experiences anything. Many of the memories are short term, but a few become core memories. Joy doesn’t want Sadness getting her hands on Riley’s memories because whenever Sadness touches a globe, it starts to turn a sad blue.


Riley does start to turn blue more often when she moves from her former home in Minnesota to San Francisco, and she gets homesick. Riley’s life crisis coincides with a crisis in Headquarters, as Sadness accidentally ejects herself, Joy, and a bunch of Riley’s memories out into the vast reaches of Riley’s mind. To get back to Headquarters, they have to emerge from the abyss where old memories wither away and board the Train of Thought.


As you might tell from this, Doctor’s script has a number of adult-oriented psychological references that elicit responses ranging from chuckles to flat out laughter. A trip through abstract reasoning turns the characters into Picasso characters, while Riley’s dream factory is a motion picture studio that shuts down whenever she wakes up. Joy and Sadness have a guide of sorts to help them find their way back: Bing Bong (Richard Kind), Riley’s long lost imaginary friend. Bing Bong is by far the most memorable character in the film. He looks like a pink elephant channeling the soul of Ed Wynn, who hasn’t fully grasped the fact that Riley has outgrown him.


While Joy, Sadness, and Bing Bong are on their journey of discovery, the remaining emotions aren’t doing too well as far as providing guidance for Riley. The girl becomes increasingly morose, leading to a real life crisis that neither the emotions nor Riley’s parents (Diane Lane and Kyle MacLachlan) are able to head off. Pete Docter came up with the idea for Inside Out based on a similar situation a relative faced as a child following being relocated.


Ironically, it’s at moments like these, when Inside Out steps outside of Riley’s head, that it falters. Riley and her unnamed parents simply aren’t as well defined or interesting as the characters inside her head. After seeing the entire film, the only things about the human characters I remembered were the facts that Riley played hockey, her mother wore glasses and her father needed a shave. This is a movie about the core memories that define who people are and the only memorable thing about an 11-year-old girl is the fact that she plays hockey.


There’s an important life lesson to be learned at the end of Inside Out, one that I won’t spoil but that Disney has made a fortune on over the years. It’s a life lesson that’s conspicuously absent in the movie itself, which is why you won’t be seeing many Riley and her folks action figures being sold alongside the millions of Joys and Bing Bongs.


Still, I continue to be amazed at the care that Pixar takes in creating its fictional universes. Like movies as diverse as Wall-E, Finding Nemo, Toy Story, Cars, and Monster’s, Inc., every single frame set inside Riley’s head is carefully, painstakingly, and logically thought out, so that the world of the mind is remarkably consistent. Far too often, moviemakers come up with a clever idea but abandon it somewhere during the execution and wind up with a production design that becomes increasingly more generic as the film goes on. Here, there’s a new idea every few seconds or so.


Were I to rate a movie based on creativity alone, there’s no question that Inside Out would rank at the top of the list (and it’s probably a shoo-in for this year’s animated Oscar). However, the only character who was really moving was Bing Bong. Inside Out is a soaring triumph for the imagination of everyone at Pixar and a thoroughly enjoyable day out at the movies. But when measured against classic Disney, or classic Pixar for that matter, it seems a bit of an inside joke. 

Read other reviews of Inside Out:


Inside Out (2015) on IMDb