Inside Out is vintage Pixar. After spending a few years mired in an adolescent funk, the studio has emerged with a take on the coming-of-age story that’s as clever as it is poignant and that suggests a newfound sense of maturity. For his follow-up to, well, Up, director Pete Docter, along with a pitch-perfect voice cast and Pixar’s usual team of genius animators, explores the uncertainties of growing up and the complex interplay between emotion and memory by delving into the mind of an 11-year-old girl. The result is a film of such piercing yet exquisite intimacy that writing this review seems like a fruitless endeavor, since no words could adequately convey that feeling. The sensation of watching Inside Out lingers long after details about the plot and particular jokes begin to fade.
Pixar’s latest work is most reminiscent not of any Disney or animated movie, but of last year’s Boyhood. While Richard Linklater’s flick offers a more anxious and ambivalent outlook on life, an attitude concisely captured by Patricia Arquette’s wrenching final line, both movies are as much about parenting as they are about being a kid, in part because their makers are unavoidably coming from that perspective, and with their white, middle-class, presumed-to-be-heterosexual protagonists, they largely adhere to popular imaginings of childhood as happy, suburban havens of innocence. These romanticized depictions are so often reproduced by Hollywood they’ve taken on an almost mythic status, seemingly grounded more in a particular set of ideals than in reality.
However, both Inside Out and Boyhood have more on their minds than nostalgia. By making the children at their centers distinctive and well-rounded enough to feel like individuals instead of archetypes, they sidestep many of the potential pitfalls and clichés that frequently doom coming-of-age tales. You don’t have to share Riley’s passion for hockey to relate to the meaningful role it plays in her life, just as you didn’t need to agree with Mason’s teenage existential musings to recognize that they are his way of making sense of the world around him and cementing his own increasingly independent identity. These movies succeed, in other words, because they understand that art taps into universal sentiments – namely, people’s capacity for empathy – most effectively when it portrays specific, not vague circumstances; they simply tell their own stories rather than attempting to cater to all possible audience members.
Inside Out especially manages to feel both deeply personal and widely accessible by exposing how its narrative has been engineered to produce particular emotional responses at given moments. All storytelling is, on some level, based around this kind of manipulation, each character and event carefully designed to trigger a desired intellectual or emotive reaction, but most of the time, the goal is to create such an immersive world and to make those behind-the-scenes calibrations subtle enough that audiences won’t notice the strings being pulled. In fact, Boyhood is a perfect example of this, taking a decidedly understated approach as it relies on a series of small moments that seem mundane when standing alone but gain a surprising amount of pathos when considered all together; it trusts viewers to make the right connections. Inside Out, on the other hand, never disguises its intentions, essentially pulling back the curtain on Pixar’s creative process and explaining how the studio has become so skilled at tugging heartstrings. The filmmakers control the audience’s emotions in much the same way that Joy, Anger and co. control Riley’s. I could practically feel them pushing buttons and turning dials in the hopes of generating excitement, laughter, tears, but rather than reducing the emotional journey at the center of the story to something cheap or inauthentic, this directness actually makes the sentimentality come across as more honest than if it had been buried under layers of irony or restraint. If a magic trick works, explaining the mechanics of how it was done doesn’t necessarily make it any less magical.
In addition to the innovative screenplay (which arguably leans more toward drama than comedy but still packs in plenty of wit and jokes that sometimes flash by so quickly you might miss them) and a musical score by Michael Giacchino that alternates between lively, jazzy cues and aching, Thomas Newman-like minimalism, credit for the movie’s effectiveness goes in large part to the voice actors. Though everyone from Mindy Kaling as Disgust and Lewis Black as Anger to Richard Kind as Riley’s imaginary friend, Bing Bong, is spot-on, Amy Poehler and The Office’s Phyllis Smith are especially well-suited to their roles as Joy and Sadness, respectively. Initially, Poehler seemed like too obvious of a choice to play a character defined by relentless positivity, but as the film unfolds, she finds new depths and nuances to the persona she honed for years on Parks and Rec, her voice bringing out notes of melancholy and sensitivity that she never quite hit while portraying Leslie Knope. Smith gives Inside Out its heart, lending just enough sweetness to her role that Sadness’s uncertainty and pessimism hit home but not so much that it tips into self-loathing or turns the character into the butt of a joke.
The importance of Sadness to the narrative is ultimately what makes Inside Out so endearing. Where most children’s films position grief and discontent as temporary, often destructive or shameful conditions, Docter and his fellow writers argue that sadness is not only perfectly natural and healthy, but also constructive, essential to the process of both growing up and being human in general. In a world where culture seems to prefer depicting kids as constantly smiling, angelic miracles that exist to make parents feel better about themselves than as real people, I can think of few other movies, excepting Spike Jonze’s Where the Wild Things Are adaptation, that are so keenly aware of how unhappy children can be and that validate those feelings instead of dismissing or downplaying them. It’s not exactly a surprise that Pixar understands the nature of catharsis, recognizing that it is generated by a combination of happiness and sorrow and that, therefore, one cannot exist without the other. That complicated, almost indescribable feeling is even more fundamental to Inside Out than any of the studio’s previous works; here, catharsis isn’t just a hoped-for response to the story’s resolution – it is the resolution.
The stakes of Inside Out are summed up in a single line of dialogue, spoken by Joy: “All I ever wanted was for her to be happy”. While this struggle might seem insignificant compared to the dozens of apocalypses staged in theaters around the globe every summer, Docter transforms Joy and Sadness’s mission to make Riley happy into a suspenseful adventure with as much tension as if they were trying to save the world. In a way, they are. They’re saving her world.