'Inside Out' is Pixar's return to form, is like Charlie Kaufman for kids

Something to pay attention to when you’re watching “Inside Out”: the way in which people try to hold back their tears in a movie theater by tilting their heads to the side slightly, as if holding their head at an angle acts as some sort of preventative measure against tears rolling down their face. Well, regardless of what angle we tilted our head, we cried a tsunami of tears while viewing the cerebral and kaleidoscopic “Inside Out.” But before delving into whys and hows of tearing up to Pixar’s latest, let’s get a little bit real about the studio’s diminishing returns as of late.

Despite its continued box office success, Pixar arguably hasn’t produced a film worthy of its trademark since 2010’s “Toy Story 3.” That’s not to say that the three films that have filled the gap in time since then, “Monsters University,” “Brave,” and “Cars 2,” aren’t worth watching, it’s just that when put alongside immersive and original epics such as “WALL-E,” “The Incredibles,” “Up,” and “Ratatouille,” they seem more forgettable and hackneyed. Those films were a part of an almost 15-years-long run (give or take “Cars” but mostly, please take “Cars”) where Pixar kept consistently one-upping itself. Having a couple of stinkers for any studio, regardless of prestige, is expected. Trial and error is a cornerstone to the filmmaking process. But three misses in a row, along with the announcement of an unnecessary “Finding Nemo” sequel debuting next year and a third “Cars” film on deck, is more of a sign of a decline in quality than growth and so, “Inside Out” is a return to form.

The conceit of “Inside Out” is that deep within our subconscious there is a colossal Rube Goldberg machine operated by cartoon manifestations of our emotions that control how we react to situations. The machine works like this: The emotions who work in the primary control center of this machine, Fear, Anger, Sadness, Joy, and Disgust, share the responsibility of maintaining this highly volatile Dr. Strangelove-esque happy-go-lucky emotional war room. Say, for example, someone on the street were to approach you and say, “Nice sweater, loser.” The five emotions make it possible to have five potential outcomes. We can scream at this dude and stomp on his feet, we can cry, we can hide under a table and wait for him to go away, we can tell him that him sweater looks ugly too, or we can just shrug it off and make a joke out of it. This moment has an emotional attribution attached to it and once the emotion is attached, a spherical-shaped ball forms, resulting in the creation of a memory. The memory is then either sent up to Long-Term Memory, where it will remain idle, or it will go out to islands of personality that the subject has formed throughout their lifetime.

The subject in this case is a pre-teen girl named Riley (Kaitlyn Dias). All of the memories she’s made in life so far have been in Minnesota. She was a key player on her local hockey team, thrived in school, had a pretty abundant friend group, and made a variety of great memories. When her parents move to San Francisco, after Riley’s father (Kyle MacLachlan) gets a new job offer, Riley is forced to make new memories in an unfamiliar venue, leaving her emotions to make some poor decisions. The almost undisputed leader of Riley’s central command console is Joy (Amy Poehler) because of her charming disposition and ability to compromise. Anger (the aptly casted Lewis Black) is an impulsive balls-out renegade who occasionally supersedes Joy’s command. Then there’s Sadness (“The Office’s” Phyllis Smith), the resident malcontent and the outcast of the command center for her constant introspection. Disgust (Mindy Kaling) and Fear (Bill Hader) are a little more subdued, but still equally important in facilitating Riley’s reasoning.

When Riley struggles at her new school, and fails to find even a sliver of happiness in her new home, one by one the personality islands fall into this gigantic void, where all disposed memories end up. Watching these really paramount symbols of adolescence plummet straight toward oblivion is simultaneously haunting and liberating. It feels like something that, as a child, might scare the piss out of us, but the message of losing old characteristics of one’s personality as a means of developing new ones is an important one. Witnessing how emotion fluctuates via this animated conceit allows the viewer to look irreverently at the internal/external prevailing forces that guide our actions. And for Riley, that fluctuation occurs when Joy, the most fundamental emotion for Riley’s happiness, and Sadness drift far, far, far off from the control center, leaving an inept combination of Disgust, Anger, and Fear to take charge. Joy and Sadness must journey through the colorful and disorienting contents of the subconscious, with the help of Riley’s forgotten imaginary friend, Bing Bong (Richard Kind), to find their way back to the control center.

The film that “Inside Out” recalls the most is Charlie Kaufman’s 2008 meta movie “Synecdoche, New York,” about a theater director whose attempt to make a play about his life becomes a growing mess of scenes and sets which also represent the inner workings of his mind and his memories. In “Inside Out,” the audience vicariously watches a photorealistic map of their emotional contours come to life through the experience of an almost uncanny character’s experiences while also observing the mechanics that make up the experience of the experience that we are experiencing. The difference between “Inside Out” and “Synecdoche, New York” is that “Inside Out” is ostensibly for children, and so its emotional sophistication is even more impressive. It’s the kind of kids movie that oils the gears of thought and turns on the waterworks. 

“Inside Out,” directed by Pete Docter, is now playing.

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