Most of us probably wish that the inside of our head could look like a Pixar cartoon and not like a wrinkled mass of gray matter. The bright but always complimentary colors, the small and mysterious writ large and understandable, the sturdy but often unsubtle metaphors, and all of it voiced by our favorite celebrities. That might sound like a dig at Pixar, but it really isn’t meant to be. Pixar’s charm comes from its ability to create an easily-digested epic out of the smallest of things. And there’s probably nothing smaller than the thoughts running through our brains.
The brain at the center of Inside Out belongs to 11-year-old Riley, whose personality is managed by five emotions: Joy (voiced by Amy Poehler), Anger (Lewis Black), Fear (Bill Hader), Disgust (Mindy Kaling) and Sadness (Phyllis Smith). While each has his or her own function and purpose in managing Riley’s thoughts and personality, the balance in their system is disrupted when Riley’s family moves from Minneapolis to San Fransisco. Sadness begins to recolor many of Riley’s memories, and in an effort to stop the process, Joy and Sadness get transported to the far reaches of Riley’s brain and have to work their way back to “Headquarters” before Riley’s entire personality erodes and she loses the core memories that fuel her passions.
The film’s concept sounds simple, but that’s a bit deceptive. Director/co-writer Pete Docter fully commits to the concept and engages in a significant amount of the inventive world-building that’s a hallmark of Pixar’s best works. There’s little subtlety in the final product, but that actually works in the film’s favor. There is a literal Train of Thought in Riley’s brain, and at some point it does become derailed. There’s a vast, dark dungeon called the Subconscious where “troublemakers” are sent and kept under lock and key.
Those are both incredibly easy pieces of humor, and they only technically qualify as metaphors, but that’s entirely the point and precisely why they make an impact. Everyone can relate to the personified mental processes that make up the bulk of the film. Even with all the advances in science and technology, the brain is still seen as a kind of MacGuffin, mysterious and unexplainable, but vital to furthering the story. Docter’s vivid and dynamic brainscapes cut the difference between science and metaphysics, illustrating the inner workings of the human brain in ways audience of all ages can understand and relate to and that doesn’t talk down to anyone of any age.
It never feels like an educational film, and that’s due to both the witty, surprisingly mature script and a full compliment of perfectly cast voice actors. While most of them seem like a “Duh, of course” casting choice (Lewis Black as Anger? Duh, of course!), nobody gives a lazy or uncommitted performance. Amy Poehler and Phyllis Smith work well off of each other, with Joy’s militantly aggressive optimism a fine counterpoint to Sadness’ much more pragmatic pessimism. Both characters gain dimensions as the film goes on as they learn how the other works, and both actresses handle all aspects of the character’s arc fantastically. Sadly, we don’t get as much time with the other emotions, so they remain a bit flatter, but they’re still just as fun when they do show up.
Despite all the fun and fantastic voice work, there’s still a rather thin story for all those thoughts to play around in. The stakes in Riley’s brain are life-and-death, but in the real world, it’s a much smaller kind of epic that doesn’t quite resonate as well until the final act. Riley isn’t the main character here, after all, and this isn’t really her story. She’s just the framing device, and it’s sometimes hard to hang your sympathies on her when Joy and Sadness are the ones who demand them. As a result, some of the emotional notes don’t quite line up correctly. They make their mark in true Pixar, go-for-the-feels fashion, but they don’t quite have the weight and drama of Docter’s previous film, Up. Although, to be honest, Docter may never hit the high notes he did in the first 10 minutes of that film, and it’s almost unfair to hold him to that standard.
Even if the story is a bit slight, the sights and sounds contained within it more than make up for it. Ever wonder how all those bizarre dreams of yours get made? You’ll get an extended look into the literal Dream Factory. What about the innermost thoughts of your parents? You’ll get that, too…Riley’s mother’s emotions resemble a View-like daytime chat show, while her father’s often get distracted replaying favorite sports memories in their state-of-the-art man-cave. And let’s just say you definitely want to stay through the credits. By giving a very tangible, textured translation to the ethereal nature of consciousness, Inside Out continues Pixar’s tradition of turning the smallest of adventures into big entertainment.
FBOTU Score: 7 out of 10 / B