Pixar’s ode to the emotions of a little girl, Inside Out is a sophisticated journey into the physical expression of the psyche. Sounds pretty philosophical for a cartoon, right? However Pixar brilliantly distills the idea into an interpretation that is surprisingly lucid. It manages to be gracefully enlightened in what it conceptualizes too. OK but just how many emotions are there really? In the 4th century BC Aristotle came up with 14: Anger, Calm, Friendship, Enmity, Fear, Confidence, Shame, Shamelessness, Kindness, Pity, Indignation, Envy, Emulation, and Contempt. Whew! That’s a lot of characters. Experts say it’s your facial muscles that tell the real story. As a result, many scientists have since agreed to reduce the core number all the way down to 4. Well Pixar chose 5: Joy (Amy Poehler), Sadness (Phyllis Smith), Fear (Bill Hader) and then granted Disgust (Mindy Kaling) and Anger (Lewis Black) their own separate entities.
In the physical world, a girl named Riley (Kaitlyn Dias) is born to a loving mother (Diane Lane ) and father (Kyle MacLachlan) in Minnesota. When her dad gets a new job, the family must relocate to San Francisco. Moving is a particularly troublesome experience for the by now 11 year old: new home, new school, new people. On the outside, we see the facial expressions that belie her feelings. On the inside, we see the emotions argue, persuade, pressure and praise in the “Headquarters” of Riley’s mind. Joy is an effervescent pixie with a haircut to match. She is most often in control of Riley’s memories which are housed in glowing color coded orbs. Each one the shade of their overriding emotion. The spheres considered the most relevant are known as “core memories”. These power five “islands” in Riley’s subconscious, each highlighting a different aspect of her personality.
Then one day, Riley’s emotional world falls apart. Everything comes to a head on her first day of school. Sadness is a blue bespeckled awkward girl with bad posture. Sadness inadvertently touches a happy memory and turns it “sad”. So Joy tries to eliminate the negative recollection. Complications arise causing Riley’s 5 core memories to get knocked from their container. Joy and Sadness are accidentally sucked through a tube and displaced along with Riley’s essential thoughts into the far reaches of Riley’s mind. Disgust, Fear, and Anger become the de facto masters at the control of decisions that could ruin her life.
As a saga, Inside Out is The Incredible Journey or it’s Fantastic Voyage. Joy and Sadness must navigate their way across this bizarro world back to the command center. Indeed navigating the subconscious mind is pretty surreal. It’s not unlike the Beatles trying to get to Pepperland in Yellow Submarine. Inside Out isn’t anywhere near as psychedelic, but it still includes the realm of Abstract Thought, an Imagination Land, Dream Productions, and a dizzying labyrinth of Long Term Memory. Denizens include a clown, a unicorn and Bing Bong, Riley’s imaginary friend from early childhood. Voiced by Richard Kind he is a cotton candy colored creature that fuses the trunk of an elephant with the tail of a cat and the squeal of a dolphin. A fun loving fellow wearing a porkpie hat and a purple bow tie, this hybrid creature is one of the more surreal entities on the Pixar roster. Anyone remember Jeremy Hillary Boob? That’s another reference to Yellow Submarine, a character that was also a bit of a nowhere man. Now a forgotten friend, Bing Boing consistently radiates joyful exuberance, although his selfless act later in the narrative has an elegiac quality.
Inside Out is a dazzling manifestation of the emotional mind, both visually and aurally. Last time director Pete Docter and composer Michael Giacchino collaborated, it earned them both Oscars (for Up). It could easily happen again. Pixar has long been the animation studio that combines the weight of poignant drama with dazzling visuals. Inside Out’s greatest gift is the presentation of the psyche as a landscape for which thoughts and memories are accounted and sorted. I realize Pixar didn’t invent this construct. The early 90s Fox sitcom Herman’s Head (It followed Married… with Children on Sunday nights) did a variation on this theme over 2 decades ago. But Pixar gets credit for expounding on the abstraction in a way that makes you question the way you experience your own life. The “Personality Islands” are a nice touch in making concepts tangible. That’s just one example of an idea that could be taught in the field of psychology.
After a series of perfectly adequate films that began in 2011, Inside Out is a welcome return to cinema par excellence for the Pixar studio. First and foremost, the adventure is an affecting story. Anthropomorphic emotions in red, yellow, green, blue and purple hues articulated as individual characters we can embrace. Joy and Sadness are the real stars here. They dominate the narrative with their odyssey back to the central hub. Call it Journey to the Center of the Mind. However Disgust, Fear and Anger all have their their moments too. Every emotion is key to a well adjusted human being. Pixar staddles the line between presenting it all as something a young child can comprehend but allowing just enough depth to captivate the adults in the audience. It’s still pretty straightforward, but there’s beauty in simplifying a complicated subject. Inside Out makes it all seem effortless.