If I didn’t know any better, I’d say that “Inside Out” was Disney’s official response to the film “Escape from Tomorrow”. If you don’t remember that film, and be grateful if you don’t because it sucked, it was the film shot secretly in Disneyworld and Disneyland without Disney’s permission, and its message was “You can’t be happy all the time”, and it criticized the company for cramming happiness down people’s throats. The film’s thesis had some issues, to say the least, and its execution was overall crappy, so the only thing interesting about it was that they successfully made a movie in Disney without Disney’s permission. So now we have “Inside Out” which began production 2 years before “Escape” was made, but nevertheless argues that no, you CAN’T be happy all the time, and that’s a good thing. Sadness is a necessary part of life and is useful, and attempting to suppress “negative” emotions and avoid change is futile and unhealthy.
The premise is kind of ripped-off from the 90s sitcom “Herman’s Head”, but no one seems to mind. Inside everyone’s head, a group of 5 emotions control most (but not all) of a person’s behaviors via a command center in the brain. We meet the emotions controlling Riley (Kaitlyn Dias), an 11-year-old girl. They are Joy (Amy Poehler), Sadness (an excellent Phyllis Smith), Fear (Bill Hader), Anger (a perfectly cast Lewis Black), and Disgust (Mindy Kaling). I’m not sure Disgust should be considered a main emotion, or an emotion at all, and her inclusion in the film seems superfluous when we have Anger. It seems the film wanted a “Mean Girls”-esque character, but personally there are many other emotions I would have rather seen portrayed than Disgust (who is probably better described as Stuck-Up than truly Disgust, but whatever). Riley is a perfectly happy girl, as most of her memories suggest. Memories are portrayed as orbs that are colored to whichever emotion dominates that memory, and they line massive shelves, except for important “core” memories, which have a special place in Headquarters.
The happiness starts to ebb, however, when Riley’s family has to move. The film doesn’t give us an explicit reason, but it seems to have to do with her father’s (Kyle MacLachlan) start-up business. Joy, who I often found rather irritating in the film in all honesty, starts to have trouble maintaining Riley’s happiness, and when Sadness begins touching memories, for some reason, Riley begins to get more and more sad. Through a series of events, Joy and Sadness find themselves thrust from Headquarters to various far reaches of Riley’s brain. They attempt to get back while the other three emotions try and fail to manage Riley in their absence.
The film is very clever, and the imagination of the writers really shows. In addition to emotions and the endless shelves of memories, we also see Personality Islands, floating landmasses devoted to core aspects of Riley’s personhood, such as her love of Hockey and her rigorous Honesty; her Subconscious, a cave of mostly horrors; a weird white room of Abstract Thought; a Train of Thought (I enjoyed the gag where the box of Facts and the box of Opinions get mixed up); and Imaginationland, where dreams get made. I’m not sure how accurate this set up is to what we know about neuroscience these days (emotions controlling cognition? Memories as perfectly recorded videos?) but I’m expecting accuracy in an animated feature about a little girl’s brain. If anything, I’m mostly curious as to the rules of how the emotions operate. They often take the helm with regards to when Riley speaks, or coming up with big ideas, but a lot of Riley’s behavior seems autonomous, with the emotions along for the ride and acting not as the catalysts to thoughts and behavior, but as reactions to them. I’m not sure the film’s universe works within the own rules it sets up for it, so that bugged me, but I doubt most viewers will care about that. It’s also kind of odd that the emotions themselves are capable of having different emotions. Joy can be afraid and Anger can be sad, for instance. You can say I’m over-thinking it, but this is a high concept film that the writers spent at least 4 years on, and I’m sure they thought of these things too and decided to either ignore them, or at the very least not include the explanation in the film for fear of slowing it down.
My issues with the rules of the universe aside, the film is often quite funny. The closing credit sequence going inside the minds of various minor characters is a hoot (loved the cat), and there is a steady parade of chuckles and cuteness as the film progresses. Some stuff falls flat (I was not as endeared by Riley’s imaginary friend Bing Bong as some other members of the audience I saw the film with…I heard a woman behind me audibly cry during one scene with him), but Sadness was a constant source of laughter for me, and the various other “employee” working in Riley’s brain were often smile-inducing. The film does pull at the heartstrings a bit, but not to the same effect that the “Toy Story” films did (Jesse’s song in “Toy Story 2” often gets to me when I catch it on TV). The film is about the inevitability of growing up, that you lose your innocence and that life will not always be happy, and that it can’t be. Well, in real life that is true, but in-universe I’m not so sure. Everything is set off because Sadness touches stuff, and theoretically if Joy always remained at the console couldn’t she just keep Riley happy? Unless there’s an underlying base emotion that the sentient Emotions simply override or keep at bay, which may be the case. Even with Sadness gone, Riley comes across as more sad than angry or fearful or disgusted when only those three are in the control room. I don’t know, it’s one of those issues the film may have with its in-universe rules.
As far as Pixar films go, I’d rank “Inside Out” somewhere in the middle. It’s much better than “The Incredibles” (the only Pixar film I’ve seen and actively disliked, though I haven’t seen either “Cars” film) but is not as good as any of the “Toy Story” films. It’s better than “A Bug’s Life”, but not as good as “Finding Nemo”. Really, “Inside Out” has its sheer cleverness going for it, but the odd in-universe rules and holes in them kept me from being as fully immersed in the film as I could have been. This likely won’t be a problem for you, and kids certainly won’t care, but it was an issue for me. I also had an issue with the inclusion of Disgust as a character at all, and Joy, who is our main protagonist, got on my nerves a bit. Still, it’s a good film full of imagination and often funny. B
P.S. : The film is preceded in theaters by the short “Lava” about a lonely volcano who wants to find love. It’s cute and the song is somewhat catchy.