As many of you know, I’ve been sidetracked by illness this summer and wasn’t able to review a number of new movies. The one that hurt the most was missing Pixar’s Inside Out, but as I eased back into attending screenings I felt I had to see current releases before I could play catch-up. Now I have, and I feel obliged to weigh in on this extraordinary and unprecedented film.
The concept itself is daring, as it takes us inside the mind of a little girl named Riley, beginning at birth and focusing primarily on her emotions at a crucial crossroads in her life. At the age of 11, she and her loving parents move from Minnesota to a brownstone in San Francisco where, on the cusp of puberty, she has to reinvent her life, make new friends, and adjust to a completely different environment. The feelings that dictate her actions and reactions are personified as Joy, Sadness, Fear, Disgust, and Anger, all expressively brought to life both visually and verbally. The dominant figure of Joy is perfectly embodied by Amy Poehler’s ebullient, life-affirming performance…but she has to work overtime to keep the other, more negative forces from overtaking young Riley’s state of mind and her all-important “core memories.” (Yes, you’ll find a fair amount of bona fide science in the picture, which makes it all the more compelling.)
Inside Out is very much a film for our time. One could posit that Walt Disney’s Pinocchio, which takes us on a highly dramatic and affective journey, covers many of the same themes in the guise of a fable. This film has a cloak of storytelling, too, but it lays its emotions bare.
There is a reason why Pixar movies stand out as they do: no one else puts such thought, care, research, and resolve into their work. What director and co-writer Pete Docter has achieved is beyond anything I have ever witnessed in a mainstream American film, animated or otherwise. That such a deeply-felt, multilayered, emotionally honest story appears as a cartoon feature may fool some people into thinking that it’s a story for kids and parents alike. I can’t vouch for youngsters’ reactions, but it seems to me that Inside Out touches the heart of grownups first and foremost—parents in particular. It’s not just an exploration of our innermost feelings, but a sophisticated probe of sense-memory.
To cite one example: I had an imaginary friend when I was young. Many of us did, I’m sure. I haven’t thought about him in decades, but Inside Out brought him back into my consciousness. The way the character of the wide-eyed, gentle Bing Bong is depicted—and voiced by the inimitable Richard Kind—is incredibly moving and indisputably real.
If, for some reason, you haven’t yet seen Inside Out, or don’t think it’s relevant to you if you aren’t tagging along with kids to the theater, I urge you to reconsider. It may be some time before you find another piece of entertainment that offers an experience this rich and rewarding. To Pete Docter, co-director Ronnie del Carmen, producer Jonas Rivera, and the many writers who contributed to this endeavor (including voice actors Poehler and Bill Hader, who are officially credited for “additional dialogue”), my congratulations. You have made a film for the ages.