Everybody expects a home run every time Pixar comes to the plate, and if “Inside Out” doesn’t hit it out of the park the way “Up” and “Ratatouille” did, it’s still a solid triple. Imaginative and colorful, it’s a literal head-trip about the process of growing up, and if it occasionally stumbles, it deserves credit for setting the bar so high.
The picture is essentially a bifurcated tale reflective of the title. On the one hand, it follows an eleven-year old girl, Riley (Kaitlyn Dias), a hockey-loving Minnesotan whose happy life is undermined when her parents (Diane Lane and Kyle MacLachlan) abruptly announce that the family is moving to San Francisco. The cross-country drive isn’t the greatest, but matters really deteriorate when they arrive at their new abode—a dreary older row house where Riley’s room is a depressing attic space—and the truck bringing their belongings is delayed, leaving them living in a largely empty space. Riley also has trouble adjusting to her new school, and when she tears up talking about the life she left behind in class, it seems to seal her fate among the other girls. She grows alternately quiet and surly at home, and her parents’ attempts to cheer her up fail miserably. Eventually she determines to run away and go back to the Midwest.
But while this “Out” side of the story is shown directly, much of the tale is portrayed from within Riley’s brain, where five personified emotions—Joy (Amy Poehler), Sadness (Phyliis Smith), Anger (Lewis Black), Fear (Bill Hader) and Disgust (Mindy Kaling)—work at a “Star Trek”-type console to help the girl deal with the challenges life brings in ways that, it’s hoped, will enable her to mature and achieve stability. Much of their work involves arranging memories old and new in their proper places and maintaining her personality’s “islands,” those key constructs—family, sources of enjoyment, and the like—that are the bedrocks of who she is.
Riley’s mood change creates chaos inside the control room where Joy has long been the dominant force. Suddenly Sadness begins to become increasingly intrusive; even though her own temperament remains sluggish, she actually begins altering some of the girl’s core memory globes from joyful gold to morose blue. The resultant confusion sends the two of them careening into the deepest recesses of Riley’s psyche, leaving the other three emotions desperately trying to maintain order, with little success. Joy and Sadness must work their way back to the console in order to stop Riley’s memories from disappearing and her “islands” from collapsing completely. They’re aided in their uncertain journey through areas like Imagination Land, Long-Term Memory, Dream Production and Abstract Ideas—sometimes stealing a ride on the Train of Thought—by Riley’s long-abandoned Imaginary Friend, Bing Bong (Richard Kind), who proves especially devoted to the girl’s wellbeing when he and Joy find themselves in the valley of discarded memories.
Throughout the joint journey of Joy and Sadness, director Pete Docter, his co-writers Meg LeFauvre and Josh Cooley, and his co-director Ronnie Del Carmen (who also collaborated with him on the general story), have fun envisioning the inner world of Riley’s mind—whether the brain really works as they suggest is inconsequential, of course—and their enjoyment is contagious. The dream world, presented as a busy backlot where the girl’s nighttime reveries are produced like movies or TV shows, is an amusing conceit, as is the region of abstract thought, where the characters suddenly become angular drawings. The imaginary boyfriend who continuously intones, “I’d do anything for Riley,” is also a clever touch—as are the brief glimpses of the control rooms in other individuals during the closing credits (don’t leave too soon). On the other hand, the nightmarish vision of a giant clown—the new symbol of childhood terror—is rather obvious.
The “inner” characters are also nicely done. Joy’s perkiness can be a bit tiresome, but the others, more sparingly used, are all winners. Black, the perfect choice, brings his usual ranting style to Anger, and Smith’s wan delivery is equally spot-on for Sadness. Though Hader’s Fear and Kaling’s Disgust are more ordinary, they certainly hit the mark.
Where the plot is weakest is in the “outer” sections, where Riley comes across as a little bland and her parents even blander. That’s not the fault of Dias, Lane or MacLachlan; the problems lie in the script, in which these segments feel like afterthoughts on which the creative team simply didn’t lavish as much attention, though it’s here that the story’s major theme—how a child matures by coming to terms with the various emotions she feels and realizes that all are important in a complex, constantly changing collage—is played out. Ironically, that undermines the picture’s own emotional core; it never attains the depth of Docter and producer Jonas Rivera’s last collaboration, “Up.” Overall, though, the “Inside” part of the film works so well that it makes one forgive the relatively pallid quality of the “Outer” ones. As usual with Pixar product, the animation itself is superb, though Michael Giacchino’s score is disappointingly unmemorable.
“Inside Out” grapples with the complexity of maturation in a way that might actually help adolescents to come to grips with what they’re feeling while aiding parents to perceive what their children are going through. But don’t worry: the message is delivered with enough spoonfuls of sugar to make it go down easily, and though a good deal of the picture’s more clever bits will sail over the head of the youngest viewers, there’s enough sheer cartoon virtuosity and razzle-dazzle action to keep them enchanted too. Pixar’s streak continues.
“Inside Out” will be preceded in theatres by James Ford Murphy’s seven-minute musical short, “Lava,” about a very-long term yearning for companionship between two lonely ocean volcanoes—Uku (Kuana Torres Kahele), on an island, and Lele (Napua Greig), on the seabed. Like its screen mate, this is an ambitious effort that just falls short of the standard of many of its Pixar predecessors, with repeated lines like “I lava you” coming across as more than a tad precious. Still, it’s visually stunning, and makes a proper match for the accompanying feature. It might even have been titled “Above Below.”