Pixar is certainly no stranger when it comes to exploring feelings and the major impact they have when mixed into a compelling narrative. Who among us has not been touched by Carl Fredricksen’s tale of love and loss in “Up,” Remy the rat’s desire to be a great chef in “Ratatouille,” or Marlin the clownfish’s epic quest to find his son in “Finding Nemo?” All of these stories played upon the heartstrings, leaving us not only entertained, but emotionally satisfied as well. However, their latest project, “Inside Out,” manages to take things to an entirely different level, one that not only accomplishes what a Pixar film normally does, but also acts as an analysis of those very feelings that the film successfully evokes.
The film tells the story of a young girl, Riley (Voice of Kaitlyn Dias), who is forced to move from Minnesota to San Francisco with her parents (Voices of Diane Lane and Kyle MacLachlan). Strangely enough though, that’s not the main focal point of the story, for most of it actually takes place in Riley head, where we follow the emotions that “control” her: Joy (Voice of Amy Poehler), Sadness (Voice of Phyllis Smith), Fear (Voice of Bill Hader), Anger (Voice of Lewis Black), and Disgust (Voice of Mindy Kaling). Their job is to balance her emotions the best they can so that nothing bad happens to her, which only becomes more difficult when she has to move to a new home, away from all her friends on her hockey team.
The situation only becomes worse when Sadness keeps fiddling with her “core memories,” eventually causing an accident that sends her, Joy, and those memories into the long-term memory section of Riley’s brain. With the absence of these two fundamental feelings and a few key happy thoughts from home, Riley’s attempt at adjusting to her new life in San Francisco continues to go downhill, threatening everything that makes her herself (family, friendship, honesty, hockey, and being a goofball). It’s a race against time as Joy and Sadness try their best to get back to headquarters to stop Riley from doing something rash, because with Fear, Anger, and Disgust in charge, you never know what could happen.
When it comes to Pixar’s films, we know that, more than likely, we can expect a stunning film featuring beautiful animation and a story that will grab hold of us and keep us entertained throughout. However, I don’t think audiences are going to be prepared for just how much further “Inside Out” goes. Yes, it has those two primary elements, but there’s also an incredible underlying layer of subtle emotional subtext at play here, which is brought to life through the literal representation of the emotions at work inside little Riley’s head. As Riley proceeds on her adjustment to San Francisco, we see her trying to stay cheerful, not only for herself, but for her parents, who we see are not having as easy time with it either (which is why we see Joy trying to keep Sadness, Fear, etc. in check, so that they don’t overtake Riley, a result which would only exacerbate the situation should it occur).
However, take Joy and Sadness out of the equation, and you’re left with an angry, bitter little girl, who wants nothing more than to go back to her home, the location of everything she has ever known. Without Joy, Riley doesn’t see the pleasure in anything (i.e the possibility of making new friends on a different hockey team, keeping in touch with her old friends, or being a goofball with her parents, who are somewhat counting on her to be their silly little girl in this difficult transition). Without Sadness, she is unable to comprehend the consequences of a certain rash decision that she makes later in the film, or its effect on the ones she loves. The underlying message becomes how all of these emotions are necessary, even Sadness, which ends up helping to keep the others in check just as much as Joy.
The interplay between the emotional subtext and its overall effect on Riley’s character arc are the very heart of the brilliance of “Inside Out.” This is an animated film that digs deeper than we’re used to seeing, and it doesn’t even end there. It also incorporates other areas such as dreams, the subconscious, literal “trains of thought,” and fading long-term memories, using them to strengthen what is already a deceptively simple narrative. The funny thing is, that ends up being another one of its strengths. Kids are probably not going to understand the complexities of the emotional interplay, but they can still follow along with the exceptional story that has multiple laugh-out-loud moments and plenty of thrills along the way. Undoubtedly they will have just as entertaining an experience as the accompanying parents, who will enjoy not only the film’s surface level, but also the deeper intricacies that the filmmakers have laid out in the plot.
Pixar has truly outdone themselves, delivering their most intelligent, ambitious, and flat-out best film yet. Working with a multi-layered story, dazzling conceptual design, and the same gorgeous animation that we have come to expect, “Inside Out” comes with a surprising amount of depth, resulting in a film that is not only delightfully entertaining, but also thought-provoking and very much emotionally-complex. There’s not really any other way to say it: it’s quite simply a masterpiece. 4/4 stars.
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