It may seem useless to set the frame of an Inside Out review with the recent history of Pixar, but it serves as an important reminder. Inside Out is a sparkling return to the creative, challenging concepts Pixar pursued before it was cool, but the film still stumbles through a few of the same motions dogging their recent productions. Hey, no one shakes a hangover in one fell swoop. And as age, blossoming alcoholism, and Inside Out have reinforced, the emotional piece is always the hardest part.
Inside Out is undoubtedly bold. One refreshing element in particular: there is no natural antagonist, certainly not one who can be separated from our hero Riley. Riley is--for the most part--a hockey loving, joyful adolescent, and we meet her on the cusp of her displacement. Displaced from her bucolic Minnesota environs, displaced from her best friends, displaced from the protection of childhood. Insomuch, our story focuses not on Riley per se, but the dialogue inside her head personified by five core emotions; Joy, Sadness, Anger, Disgust, and Fear.
So who is our heel? The only heel; ourselves. From whence does our conflict arise? The only place; internal reactions to outside pressure. Cut from the oldest truth of all, Riley is her own worst enemy. Pixar pumps this root for some conceptually heavy subject matter, kid’s film or no. Which emotion will you let dominate your control panel? For most anyone carrying the weight of life and experience, this is an ongoing, at times consuming effort. And Inside Out is relentless in illustrating this precarious emotional balancing act.
Our core emotions are voiced impeccably by Amy Poehler, Lewis Black, Bill Hader, Mindy Kaling, and Phyllis Smith. They're so well cast, if you’re familiar with these individuals, I don’t have say who is who. The Emotions' primary function is to observe and react to Riley's experiences. Whoever is at the helm of Riley's particular reaction then defines her newly acquired memory, and these memories are cataloged. There is a greater system in place for the storage of these memories, a key to the story and a truly inventive perception of the life of the mind.
These emotions vie for attention, purpose, and control within young Riley, and where they’re all uniquely her, the relatable reality is they all seem to have a mind of their own. At one point Joy tries to relegate Sadness to a chalk drawn circle at the far edge of the office, or a scenario I call, “waking up.” A sharper actualization of the misconception our emotions are something to be cordoned off for the greater good I cannot recall.
So here you have this emotional gravity, philosophical weight, and conceptual grandeur, but the story itself isn’t much. The primary action takes place inside Riley’s head, and the results of this action occasionally bleed through to her external world. In short—and the plot movement could fit on a fortune cookie insert—Joy and Sadness are catapulted from the nerve center in an effort to rescue and return Riley’s core memories, her identity for all intents and purposes. The adventure Joy and Sadness live it out inside of Riley’s head is terribly small. The actual gears moving the story are unimpressive, and at times tedious. At a lean 94 minutes, you can feel the plot stretching thin right beneath your feet. There is one primary goal, and then a number of silly impediments between Joy, Sadness, and our desired outcome. And do you think these opposite emotions have to learn something about working together? Well, spoilers and all.
And here is the all too familiar crossroads where Pixar has been spinning their wheels for some time. Inside Out is delightful and demands to be seen, but it’s still a lot of hat and a noticeable, frustrating lack of cattle. Conceptually it’s brave, and they mine the complexities of our internal identity for moments ranging from profound to precious. Yet the story itself feels cobbled together after the fact, something functionary as opposed to fitting. Inside Out is a huge step back toward rarified air, but my memories of a finer Pixar are persistent. Perhaps it’s a personal problem, but as Inside Out so cuttingly reminds us—a scene where I wept…like, big old fat tears—our happiest memories are at times our saddest ones, and through that realization life can finally reveal its endless and rising complexity.