Movie Review: Inside Out
By Matthew Huntley
June 25, 2015

What did you say about pancakes?

The underlying premise behind Inside Out is so familiar and filled with so many creative possibilities that it’s somewhat baffling to think it took any filmmaker this long to realize it, particularly as an animation, which tends to offer more visual freedom than real-life actors and sets. The idea that little people live inside our heads and control how we feel seems long overdue. Then again, maybe the amount of time it took Inside Out to reach theaters is a good thing, because it’s clearly been done right. It will no doubt become Disney-Pixar’s latest crowd pleaser.

Of course, how our minds function and what drives us to make certain decisions isn’t exactly a novel subject for the movies. For instance, how many times have we seen a character’s conscience split into two, with a white angel sitting on one shoulder and a red devil on the other? There was also Being John Malkovich and The Cell, both of which explored, albeit very differently, the concept of outside individuals acting as a proxy in someone else’s head and therefore influencing how they behaved.

But Inside Out takes a fresh approach and suggests emotions themselves are distinct individuals, each with their own unique personality, who are responsible for how we feel at any given moment. They occupy our mind’s central hub, called Headquarters, and the emotion we project to the outside world is based on the last one to press the hub’s main release button. Leading the pack is the wide-eyed and ceaselessly positive Joy (voice of Amy Poehler), who narrates the story. She’s joined by the blue and bespectacled Sadness (Phyllis Smith); the purple and skinny Fear (Bill Hader); the green and sarcastic Disgust (Mindy Kaling); and the red, fiery Anger (Lewis Black).

The movie informs us that all people (and animals) have such a group living inside their minds, but the story focuses on 11-year-old Riley (Kaitlyn Dias). Joy and the others have been with Riley ever since she opened her eyes and together they create tiny spheres of memories. The “core memories,” comprised of Riley’s most important life experiences, make up the five islands of her personality, which vary from person to person, but in Riley’s case, these include Family, Friendship, Hockey, Honesty and Goofball, or at least that’s what they are now.

For all of Riley’s life, the five emotions have maintained a relative status quo and mostly happy times, but things suddenly change when Riley’s mom (Diane Lane) and Dad (Kyle MacLachlan) decide to move from Minnesota to San Francisco, sending the team through their own emotional whirlwind. Should the new move make Riley happy, sad, scared, or angry? It’s not exactly clear and that puts everybody on edge. Plus, poor, remorseful Sadness, feeling left out because she doesn’t quite know her purpose yet, can’t help but touch Riley’s latest core memory and turn it into a sad one. She also feels compelled to touch previous happy memories and make them sorrowful.

Joy, worried that Sadness’ actions could have permanent detrimental effects on Riley’s personality, gathers up all the core memories and attempts to dispose of the sad ones, but she and Sadness accidentally get sucked out of a memory tube and tossed into the wide expanse of Riley’s mind. With her core memories out of place, and Joy and Sadness no longer occupying Headquarters, Riley’s five islands run the risk of collapsing and her personality being thrown off balance, leaving her in a perpetual state of lethargy and depression.

Joy and Sadness must trudge through the deepest mazes, crevices, tunnels and valleys of Riley’s psyche as they try to make their way back to Headquarters. They approach various sections, including the seemingly endless annals of long-term memory; the bizarre hall of Abstract Thought; the non-sensical (but perfectly believable for anyone who’s ever pretended) Imagination Land; Dream Productions, a movie studio of sorts that creates Riley’s dreams and nightmares; and eventually The Abyss, or the darkened pit where memories go to fade away permanently.

Joining them is Riley’s once imaginary friend named Bing Bong (Richard Kind), a bumbling, pinkish buffoon who’s part elephant, part cat and part cotton candy. He also happens to squeal like a dolphin and shed tears of hard candy (we’re talking about an imaginary friend, after all). Bing Bong assures Joy and Sadness they can reach Headquarters by hopping aboard the Train of Thought, although his directions are suspect given his poor literacy skills. All Bing Bong really wants is for Riley to once again imagine she and him blasting off in their rocket wagon, but the movie knows it’s in the nature of humans to eventually forget their imaginary friends.

Inside Out is sort of ingenious in the way it suggests our minds must break down from time to time in order for us to grow and become more resilient creatures, especially after a significant, life-changing event occurs. It knows that mental anguish and uncertainty are simply parts of life and serve their own special purpose. However, the movie refrains from ever stating this explicitly, a sign the film’s directors, Peter Docter, who last made the wonderful Up, and Ronaldo Del Carmen, trust the audience to gather this for ourselves. They assume we have the intelligence to link what’s happening in Riley’s head with our own life experiences. They also don’t go out of their way to pander to kids, who are the target demographic. For the time being, younger viewers may simply enjoy the movie for its spectacle and relentless energy, but the filmmakers know they’ll be able to appreciate the deeper meanings and psychology behind the story when they get older, so they keep things subtle.

Given the subject matter, there are so many directions this story could have taken and so many conflicts the writers could have dreamed up. We all know just how chaotic, extraordinary, complex, and often ridiculous the mind can be and that it’s open to endless interpretation. But the filmmakers don’t get carried away. They stay focused and keep the plot coherent and intelligent, and eventually work toward a heartfelt and poignant message about how all our emotions play an equal role in who we are. This may be obvious in hindsight, and it’s something we become more wary of as we get older, but it helps to be reminded. And on a pure cinematic level, Inside Out, like almost all Disney-Pixar productions, is vivid, rich in detail, charismatic, humorous, and just plain fun. Maybe it’s because we all have a mind and emotions of our own that makes the movie so appealing, or because it sweeps us up and tosses us into an exciting and wondrous new world, the likes of which we haven’t seen before. In any case, there’s every reason to think anyone who sees Inside Out can (and will) enjoy it.