Ever since the release of Toy Story in 1995, Pixar Animation Studios has made heart and soul its bread and butter. Audiences care deeply about a diverse cast of characters, including a lost clown fish, a lonely worker robot and a group of conflicted monsters, among many others, because the experiences of each touched upon the universality of human emotions in smart and reflective ways. Settings and time periods for these films may fluctuate, but the spiritual essence of Pixar's touch does not.
With Inside Out, a modest and tender exploration of memory, transition and personality, Pixar finally dives headfirst into the mind. Not surprisingly, the inner workings and mechanisms of cognitive thought are personified in clever fashion. Each human character has a unique brain made up of the same five expressions, with variations that match demeanor and age.
Director Pete Docter introduces us to the mental operations within a 12-year old girl named Riley; her control center is dominated by Joy (Amy Poehler), clouded by Sadness (Phyllis Smith), limited by Fear (Bill Hader), emboldened by Disgust (Mindy Kaling) and occasionally enraged by Anger (Louis Black).
Riley's formative years go by in a flash, as most Pixar prologues do, leading toward the first major transformative event in her life. After growing up in Minnesota making friends, playing hockey, and surrounded by nature, Riley is whisked away to San Francisco, where her parents hope a new business venture will ensure a bright future. The jarring shift sends shockwaves through Riley's control center, leveling the total harmoniousness that Joy has long wielded over her colleagues.
Initially, Inside Out is told from the very specific perspective of Joy, a single (and distrusting) vantage point in Riley's cumulative personality. As her sense of power begins to wilt, the film tips toward a more complex experience in which Fear, Sadness, Disgust and Anger are all given the opportunity to express themselves in new ways. For Joy, this is a potential tragedy that must be stopped, but Docter and the Pixar gang see transition as inevitable. Herein lies the film's subtle genius.
A domino effect takes place with Riley's core memories after the move; Joy remembers them in their purist state, while Sadness does not, instinctually driven to place her own imprint on the past and present. The merging of these contrasting tones unsettles Riley's brain function and personality, sending the two emotions on a journey to save their host from making a bad life-changing decision that could endanger them all.
Docter understands the trauma that accompanies misguided perception and expectation. Joy's obsession with sustaining Riley's "happiness" feels aligned with Carl Fredericksen's (Ed Asner) insane balloon flight in Up and Mike's (Billy Crystal) resistance to change in Monster's Inc. Not surprisingly, both films were also directed by Docter, a humane filmmaker attuned to the necessity and heartache of transition.
Inside Out's narrative trajectory takes some surprising and heartbreaking turns. While feeling small in scale, it does nothing less than renovate the entirety of a young girl's mind, inviting a more complex reading of our own memories in the process. As someone very close to me said recently, it's dangerous to romanticize moments (and people) because you threaten to obscure their true meaning. Docter's film essentially proves this point by deconstructing the existential crisis of Joy, and demystifying the affliction of Sadness.
Visually, Inside Out, which opens Friday, June 19, presents a powdery color scheme that complements both the naïve hope of Riley's past and the elastic courage of her future. You can't have one without the other. The film looks expectedly beautiful, but more importantly it's smart about the dangers of imbalance. Growing up can't be about one emotion dominating another, but a messy and sometimes scary collaboration between all of our jagged little selves.
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