Many adults love Pixar movies just as much as the actual target audience for their childlike animated films. I’m no exception. The creative minds at Pixar are fond of plumbing the depths of melancholy and nostalgia to create sophisticated features adored by people of all ages. One of their efforts – 2008’s Wall-E – even rises to the level of film art. The movie is gorgeous to look at, and the technique of minimal dialog employed in the first half is gutsy and inspired. It may be unfair to put those kinds of expectations on any movie, but that’s what I do every time Pixar announces a new release. They are victims of their own quality and consistency. That’s why what I’m about to type feels strangely dismissive: Inside Out is a solidly entertaining kid’s movie. It’s well-paced, energetic, and engaging. The trademark characteristic of a Pixar movie, though – being swept up by the emotion, usually to the point of tears – was missing for me this time.
According to the world of Inside Out, we all have five core emotions living within us, controlling our actions – Joy, Sadness, Fear, Disgust, and Anger. We’re introduced to Riley, an eleven year-old girl, and the emotions inside her head. Joy (Amy Poehler) is the emotion that has the most sway in Riley’s life, but that’s all about to change. Despite Joy’s best efforts to keep Riley happy and positive, she is uprooted from her life in Minnesota and moved to a new home in San Francisco. None of the emotions inside Riley understand why her parents would do this, but Sadness (Phyllis Smith) suddenly has the compulsion to seize upon Riley’s memories. Our memories in this world are represented by glass orbs and Riley's become tinged with the power of Sadness when that emotion touches them. Now the memories won’t return to their original state, so Joy tries to convince Sadness to stay away until a solution is found; alas, to no avail. Joy and Sadness inadvertently get sucked up into the pneumatic tube that transfers Riley’s memories from short-term storage in Headquarters to the vast long-term system deeper inside the maze of her brain. As you might guess, the remainder of the film involves the two lost emotions trying to return to Headquarters.
That’s Inside Out’s biggest weakness. It’s an interesting premise, and director Pete Docter – who is co-credited with the story idea and screenplay – has a great deal of fun with it. But, when the quest is revealed, the movie becomes rote. The plot holds no surprises and, especially in comparison to other Pixar films, this is a story we’ve seen before. Once our protagonists find themselves far from home, the plot becomes the standard journey home. That diminishes the overall effect only slightly, because Inside Out is still a lot of fun and most of that is thanks to the talented cast. Amy Poehler shines with effervescence as the infinitely positive Joy, and Phyllis Smith (best known for her work on the American version of The Office) is the perfect counterpoint as Sadness. Back at Headquarters, stand-up comedian Lewis Black shows why he’s the obvious choice to play Anger. Finally, Pixar regular Richard Kind brings the studio’s trademark warm fuzziness as Bing Bong, Riley’s forgotten imaginary friend.
Bing Bong’s character arc comes closest to engendering that feeling I usually get with Pixar movies. It’s a sort of melancholy at the thought of things lost when childhood ends. The character has been wandering the labyrinthine expanse of Riley’s memory banks for years, and he ultimately proves selfless in his efforts to get Joy and Sadness back to Headquarters. The visual design of Bing Bong, described as part elephant, part cat, and with a torso made of cottony candy, is also a treat. He’s as delightful for adults as he is for kids. After all, that’s one of the things Pixar does best. Whether Joy and Sadness are taking a shortcut through Riley’s understanding of abstract thought or visiting her dream factory – which looks suspiciously close to a certain Hollywood backlot – Inside Out supplies plenty of in-jokes for adults to enjoy.
In the end, all of these elements come together to make a really good film, but not a great one. I’m the outlier though. I try not to read any full length reviews of a movie before I’ve written my own, but it’s obvious just by glancing at review aggregator sites, and seeing a few excerpted quotes, that consensus holds Inside Out as another animated masterwork. I can’t go that far, but this is what excites me to write about movies. I want to contribute to the debate (maddeningly subjective as it is) in any way I can. I’m trying to figure out what makes them work, because I think that might help explain what makes me work. For me, what keeps Inside Out from being great is a combination of (perhaps unfair) high expectations based on Pixar’s previous output, and a formula that feels well-worn at this point. Is it worth seeing? Yes, but don’t expect it to change your world.
Why it got 3 stars:
- It's entertaining, and well made, but doesn't rise to the level I usually
expect from Pixar.
- The predictable point A to point B plot was underwhelming.
- It's definitely worth seeing, though, because as is usually the case with
Pixar, as far as kids movies go, you could do a lot worse.
Things I forgot to mention in my review, because, well, I'm the Forgetful Film Critic:
- The short film that comes before the feature, called Lava, is wonderful,
and almost got the old tear duct factory up and running.
- Mindy Kaling and Bill Hader portray the emotions Disgust and Fear, but
sadly, they aren't given much to do.
- The most disappointing scene (where we see the emotions inside Riley's
parents) falls back on the laziest gender stereotypes imaginable.