dir. Pete Docter, Ronaldo Del Carmen
written by: Pete Docter, Ronaldo Del Carmen, Meg LeFauve, Josh Cooley
starring: Amy Poehler, Phyllis Smith, Bill Hader, Mindy Kaling, Lewis Black, Richard Kind
3.5 out of 4 stars
What goes on inside your head? Electric impulses, blood flow, and hormones, of course; but what goes on inside your head if it’s presented by personified cognitive characters?
Inside Out, Pixar’s first of two 2015 ventures, explores the mind of Riley, a midwestern 11-year-old girl in the throes of a happy childhood. Joy (Amy Poehler) runs the show inside her head, leading her ragtag team of mixed emotions through the preteen’s daily life. Eleven years on the job and Joy can’t see any surprises ahead, but little does she know Riley’s life will be changed dramatically when her father accepts a job in the very not-Minnesota city of San Francisco. Joy contends with Anger, Disgust, Fear, and her constant challenger Sadness to guide Riley through her changed environment. Amid the crisis of learning a very strange culture–Anger is particularly displeased with broccoli as a pizza topping–and starting at a new school, Sadness accidentally causes an identity crisis that sends her and Joy on an adventure through Riley’s mind to recover the core memories they fear lost.
The writing is brilliant, and the direction is flawless. They don’t let the mind rest, Riley’s or the viewers. Writers Pete Docter, Ronaldo Del Carmen, Meg LeFauve, and Josh Cooley (with additional dialogue from the cast and Pixar regulars) hit so many thoughtful jokes, pun thoroughly intended. Some of the jokes are far too perfectly orchestrated. When a box of facts and opinions spills, an imaginary friend brushes it off since it “happens all the time. Don’t worry about it.” So much of the characters differing emotional personalities play into their exact personification. Joy can barely come down from cloud nine. Sadness’s only positive thoughts are those that she’s positive something bad with happen. Anger is pissed off about everything. Disgust is that clique-y bitch in your ear. Fear screams with reckless abandon but only the screaming is reckless. The other mind pieces manage to make every line useful, and with a taut running time, not a moment is left with pointless filling. There is a crisis ongoing and Inside Out keeps with a punchy, hilarious, and sometimes sad pace.
The voice cast is phenomenal. Amy Poehler is the epitome of Joy without any surprise. Leslie Knope has essentially crawled into Riley’s brain and is running the show, just without the bureaucracy. Bill Hader screams pricelessly in his manic worry. This man can literally do anything with his voice. Between The Skeleton Twins, Trainwreck, and this great movie, I’m glad this SNL alum is transitioning into a leading man. Mindy Kaling plays Disgust with a dishy, mean girl aire I haven’t seen from her before, but her vocals are grating in just the right way. Of course, Lewis Black yells like a champ as Anger. Not a single joke is missed, much like in his standup. No one could have gotten such a great personification as he.
Even with this amazing cast, there were two standouts: Richard Kind as Bing Bong, and Phyllis Smith as Sadness. Richard Kind is a highwire act with such an expressive voice. Every joke hits perfectly as an imaginary friend. He’s been wandering around Riley’s mind, doing as he pleases as she grows up. He can get into trouble and drag those with him into it. The impressive portion is the sad joy he can express at watching Riley grow and realizing they may not form any new memories but the ones that they had made it all worth it.
Phyllis Smith made the exceptional achievement here. Her voice drips sorrow. Such a delight in The Office, she brings her meek characterization to embody a character that could have been a near maudlin overacting. When Sadness can’t move any more, her lines drag behind her not speaking up, barely above a whisper. She nails the difficult jokes, expressing her joy at rainy days and nearly laughing / nearly crying through the line. In talking about favorite memories, she reminisces, “I love that one too…She felt awful. She wanted to quit. Sorry, I went sad again, didn’t I?” This character is bogged down by her own persona, but the character doesn’t come off as minding it. She acts as she is supposed to, as she is sadness, and Smith’s performance brings out the naivete of Riley’s mind at understanding the place for this emotion in her developing mind.
The emotions adventure is an engaging, insightful, touching journey through the mind, hitting so many excellent marks along the way. The story explores concepts of memory, imagination (and imaginary friends), learning and other concepts that enthralled the cognitive scientist in me. More importantly, they focus on the changing mind, and they aren’t afraid to make it difficult. Some viewers complain about how sad the story goes, but what viewer of Pixar films is not used to wanting to cry at some point along the way?
Writing a story revolving around the mind of a teenager is going to involve sadness, and the mind must accept it. There are drastic changes occurring, and all the emotions need accessed to develop a healthy personality. Experiences are not cut-and-dry: a happy memory can be tinged with sadness, anger and disgust play hand-in-hand. To grow, it must be realized that Joy is not the only emotion that makes up a person’s core self. Fear, Anger, Disgust, and yes, Sadness work together with Joy to form a complete identity, and when Riley and her emotions accept that all parts are valuable, her growth is able to continue.