Give all the credit in the world to the minds and talent behind Inside Out, the latest animated feature from Disney•Pixar, for shooting for the moon in terms of ambition and raising the bar for family entertainment in terms of content that challenges the mind and spurs the imagination. The film, like so many other Pixar productions, is chock full of visual cleverness and ingenuity, propelled by a thoughtful and accessible imagining of the craziness that can go in people’s heads.
Unfortunately, the script that writer/director Pete Docter (along with writers Meg LeFauve and Josh Cooley) contrives to fully explore all those clever concepts starts to feel labored about midway through and never completely regains its stride by the end. It’s never quite as fun as it hopes to be, despite the game efforts of its voice cast, and you may be left to wonder if there was too much of an effort to make the grown-ups laugh here, rather than reach the entire target audience.
Inside Out introduces audiences to the voices inside the head of 11-year-old Riley (voiced by Kaitlyn Dias). As Riley is for the most part a happy kid, the emotion most often at the controls inside “Headquarters” is Joy (Amy Poehler), the blue-haired, bursting with energy sprite whose job it is to keep Riley upbeat and positive. At times Joy has to contend with the other emotions in residence at Headquarters, however: there’s Fear (Bill Hader), who’s out to keep Riley safe from anything and everything; Anger (Lewis Black), who’s keen sense of fairness is occasionally influenced by a bit of a temper; Disgust (Mindy Kaling), who makes sure Riley steers clear of anything even remotely gross; and Sadness (Phyllis Smith), whose role in Riley’s happy life no seems quite sure of just yet.
The five of them face their greatest challenge yet when Riley’s family moves from Minnesota to San Francisco, and Riley has to adjust to a new house, a new school, and making new friends. In the tumult of all those adjustments, Joy and Sadness find themselves ejected from Headquarters and lost in the vast corridors of Long-Term Memory, at risk of getting discarded for good in the dreaded Memory Dump, from which nothing ever returns. As they frantically search for a way back home, it’s up to Riley’s remaining emotions to hold things together, but Riley’s mood and outlook on the move and her life take a predictable turn with only Fear, Disgust, and Anger left at the controls. Can the two seemingly-contrary emotions get back to Headquarters in time to save the day, or at least keep the others from making things worse? Perhaps, but first, they’ll have to figure out how to work together, and at last figure out just what Sadness’s role in the balance of Riley’s emotions will be.
Disney•Pixar is making much of Inside Out being the follow-up to their Oscar-winning 2009 smash hit Up, and truthfully, the two are very comparable in terms of how sophisticated and emotionally nuanced the two films are in terms of the stories they tell. Despite the fact that this film spends most of its time focused on the avatars of Riley’s emotions, they are still the emotions of a human girl who experiences an all-too-familiar and difficult situation for kids: having their lives uprooted by circumstances they have no control over, like when Mom or Dad get a new job and have to move to a new place. Despite how outlandish and wild some of the visualizations of concepts such as memories (both long and short-term), the subconscious, and emotional conflict get throughout the film, the commitment to the idea that its all going on inside the mind of an 11-year-old never gets lost or muddled, and that keeps things feeling, as odd as it might sound, “real.”
Inside Out is arguably at its best when all five of Riley’s competing emotions are interacting with one another, as each member of the voice ensemble brings their A-game and the casting proves to be spot on. Poehler is far and away the star here, but Joy, for all her bright and shiny energy, is really the “straight man” here in terms of comic balance, while the others, especially Lewis Black and Mindy Kaling, get arguably the biggest laughs playing the extremes. Veteran character actor Richard Kind (Mad About You, Spin City) also shines voicing Bing Bong, an imaginary friend lost as so many childhood imaginary friends are in the labyrinth of long-term memories.
But where Inside Out gets tripped up is in the pace of its storytelling. In order to explore as many different imaginatively-conceived realms of Riley’s mind as possible, Docter and his fellow script writers seem to feel the need to keep adding obstacles and complications to Joy and Sadness’s journey, and each one feels less and less organic to the film’s flow as time goes on. Despite only running 94 minutes, the film feel longer and almost leaden in its second act due to that perceived need, so don’t be surprised if you start to see the kids you bring to see Inside Out start to get a little restless before things start to wrap up.
For the grown-ups, that feeling might be mitigated by some very funny running gags, such as just why do things like annoying jingles from TV commercials seem to linger in memory and pop into the forefront of conscious thought for no good reason, or what goes through the minds of Mom and Dad when interactions with their children take unexpected turns. Balancing the more subtle, dialogue-driven comic bits to keep parents entertained and invested with the broad comedy necessary to reach younger audiences is perhaps the most difficult aspect of making any family-geared entertainment in today’s world in general, and in Inside Out that balance is definitely weighted more toward grown-up humor. That’s not a bad thing, at all; in a way, it shows a great deal of faith on the part of the film makers that the film will still work and kids will be bright and sophisticated enough to pick up on most, if not all, of what’s happening along with their parents.
But that effort also makes the film less universally accessible than, say, last year’s The Lego Movie, which attempted an even balance of grown-up and child-geared humor as it went way over the top to try and make everybody happy. Inside Out takes a more measured, subtle approach to entertainment while focusing its ambition on bringing to life abstract concepts in a fun and accessible way. The result is a film that may not be your kid’s all-time favorite Pixar movie when all is said and done, but it might be the one that gets them thinking the most about what’s going on inside their own heads.
Starring the voices of Amy Poehler, Bill Hader, Lewis Black, Mindy Kaling, Phyllis Smith, Diane Lane, Kyle MacLachlan, Kaitlyn Dias. Directed by Pete Docter and Ronnie del Carmen.
Running Time: 94 minutes
Rated PG for mild thematic elements and some action.