Anyone who plans on being first in line for Finding Dory in June 2016 might want to brace for the worst, because six years after ripping out our guts with a single montage in Up, Disney/Pixar has released Inside Out, a feature length coping strategy that’s just as heartrending, but also just as instructive in its depiction of the grieving process. If it’s meant as a favor, think back to the barracuda massacre in Finding Nemo, and imagine how they’ll try to top that.
Compared to the widowers’ adventures of Nemo and Up, or any of Pixar’s other output to date, the stakes are actually quite low in Inside Out. A young girl named Riley moves with her folks from Minnesota to California, and we get a look inside her head as her Emotions, represented by a core group of five, Joy, Fear, Anger, Disgust, and Sadness, go haywire when confronted with change. That’s it. It’s more like the life of a Pixar moviegoer than it is Pixar entertainment, and therein lies its ingenuity.
Pixar’s reputation for mature storytelling solidifies tenfold here. Inside Out meshes goofy fantasy with mundane drama as it turns Riley’s experience into an over-the-top crisis, all the while treating her anxiety with the utmost respect. After conjuring much more expansive worlds, Pixar’s animators rise to the challenge of envisioning the inside of a girl’s mind, playing around with an environment as rigidly structured as it is susceptible to unpredictable catastrophe, all glimpsed by a stranded Joy and Sadness during a road trip through the gray matter of the brain, a description that does disservice to the beautiful, colorful, frequently hilarious theme park-styled world Pixar has created.
Even the anthropomorphic Emotions are complex; co-writers Pete Docter and Ronnie Del Carmen ensuring they don’t come across as one-note caricatures despite the fact that that’s technically what they are. Amy Poehler’s Joy is the standout, coming across like a brand ambassador for happiness, repressing her frustration at managing her less optimistic peers behind a bubbly facade, and doing more to highlight the trouble with considering happiness the prime virtue in life than any dour and ignored psychological essay.
There’s a little of every emotion in each of Riley’s Emotions, whether it’s expressed in Sadness (Phyllis Smith) fondly remembering a sad memory or Anger (Lewis Black) sadistically anticipating playing tricks on people. Docter and Del Carmen are counting on the tenuousness of their concept to push the story forward. It’s because the emotions can’t work together or reconcile their differences that Riley is pushed further into crisis, and the majority of the movie sees the dismantling of the imaginative world set before us.
Like with every Pixar movie, there are plenty of surprises in store, and the jokes aimed at adults make up a much higher percentage this time around, to the extent that the cheap visual gags are so few and far between they feel like they’ve been pasted in by a DreamWorks consultant. Sure, the Emotions’ behind-the-scenes string pulling may somewhat mechanize the human characters of Riley and her parents, who already suffer from Pixar’s house-style bouncy animation and cheesy interplay, but it’s a minor distraction given how intricately their mood swings and conversations develop.
Amid the burgeoning number of Pixar sequels, which will likely continue the trend in varying quality set by the Cars and Monsters, Inc. franchises, this can’t be missed, if only for its independent spirit. Sophisticated, gorgeous, playful, immensely empathetic, and able to deliver its message in a tearjerking crescendo unto a natural, painful revelation, it may leave you feeling more gutted than any animated movie you’ve ever seen, and it’s all because Riley’s dad just had to get a job in stupid San Francisco.