This review made possible in part by The MovieBob Patreon.
If you look close enough, you start to see that for all the talk of Pixar's vaunted originality, they've been (with rare exception) telling a variation on the same basic story since TOY STORY: A world within a bigger world (Andy's Room, Nemo's ocean, Monstropolis, Remy's sewers, Wall-E's Earth, Carl's widower solitude, etc) that seems to be running fine but is in fact quietly-dysfunctional has said dysfunction exposed/further-disrupted by the arrival of a new personality and/or idea (Buzz, Nemo's growing independence, Boo, Remy's sense of taste, EVE, Russell, etc). Attempts by a well-intentioned maintainer of the status quo (Woody, Marlin, Mike, Remy's dad, Otto, Carl, etc) lead to one or more protagonists (usually representing polarized opinions about The Change) being exiled in some way into the bigger world, wherein they quest (usually but not always to return home) and in doing so undergo a mutual shift in perspective that ultimately improves but does not necessarily "upend" the original status quo.
This isn't to say that Pixar isn't original, just that it's all the more remarkable that they've been able to be so original while so frequently working from the same basic structure - an indictment of the idea that polish and refinement can't be as valid, creatively, as re-inventing the narrative wheel all the time. Case in point: INSIDE OUT is probably as close as they've come to outright making "TOY STORY but with _____" ...and it still manages to land as a new member of the studio's legendary Top Tier productions - this is a masterpiece.
MILD SPOILERS FOLLOW:
But yes, what we have on our hands here really does feel (if you'll pardon an initial over-simplification) very much like a gender-reversed TOY STORY, in as much as it involves two (superficially, at least) female characters fighting over influence in the life-direction of a young girl; with the conceit this time being that the Woody/Buzz rivals are personifications of her emotions (Joy and Sadness) rather than avatars of classical masculinity (The Cowboy and The Astronaut) and they're feuding over inner-development and emotional well-being as opposed to whose merchandise most-primarily covers the bedroom.
The Big Idea: These emotional-beings (Joy, Sadness, Disgust, Fear and Anger) are our main characters, a combination tech-crew/board-of-directors guiding the day-to-day responses of young Riley in a manner that literalizes and mechanizes the concept of emotional development: The crew takes turns dealing out reactions, which create color-coordinated Memories (in the form of crystal balls) which they dispatch down into her broader consciousness for filing - except for a select few Core Memories so important that they serve as the life/energy-source for Islands of Personality that make up Riley's fundamental "self."
Thus far, Joy (Amy Poehler) has always been the defacto leader - after all, Riley is still young and who else would've been a baby's primary original emotion - taking it as her mission to make sure that Riley is happy as much as possible; taking personal pride in having created all of the Core Memories herself and relegating the other four Emotions to secondary situational duties: Anger (Lewis Black) is useful in a "fight," Fear (Bill Hader) keeps her out of danger, Disgust (Mindy Kaling) is in charge of taste (literally and figuratively) and Sadness... well, she can't figure out what to do with Sadness (Phyllis Smith), whose very existence Joy sees as an entirely negative influence to be as well-suppressed as possible. Gee, I wonder where this is going?
Unfortunately for Joy, she finds her ability to control the situation flying rapidly out of control when Riley turns 11 and her parents unexpectedly relocate the family from an idyllic Minnesotan suburb to urban San Fransisco; where there's only so much she can do to find the positives where Riley hates her cramped new home, unfamiliar new school, gross local food and suffers general change-anxiety. Soon enough, overly-curious Sadness has inadvertently(?) created her first Core Memory, and Joy's frantic attempts to prevent it's installation backfire spectacularly enough to get her and Sadness blasted out of Headquarters into the maze-like realm of Long Term Memory - leaving Riley's judgement (and eventually safety) imperiled by having only Fear, Anger and Disgust at the controls
This is a pretty heavy metaphor to be working with in a family movie: What we're watching is a child going into a defensive-posture (Fear, Anger and Disgust are wholly reactive as Emotions at this point in her life) in response to adversity, and the ticking-clock for Joy and Sadness to get home is the rapid degradation and crumbling of the Islands of Personality - Riley is having a breakdown, and she's literally losing herself in the process. The visualization of this is as devastating as it sounds - you were expecting something else from Pixar? - but it's quickly apparent that that's the whole point: The self-realization journey here is Joy's, and the realization is that she's been wrong this whole time - that it's not healthy or safe to only ever be happy - or, more directly, to deny that Sadness has an important place in the psyche, too.
Poehler is really excellent here, investing Joy with exactly the right level of upbeat perkiness that feels endearing at first but also makes sense as we come to understand that Joy is... well, kind of the villain here in terms of the whole plot turning on how wrongheaded her leadership has been and how much of a jerk she's been to Sadness. By the same token, Smith brings a stunning level of depth and nuance to Sadness, who seems like an impossible character to realize (by her nature, she has to be a buzzkill and a complainer who we none the less have to like and root for) but somehow works from design to execution. Smith probably isn't well known to most audiences (she's possibly best known as Phyllis Lapin-Vance in THE OFFICE) but she turns Sadness into something intriguingly hard to categorize.
I actually feel like there's an even deeper, more important subtext to this relationship (Joy and Sadness) regarding how to properly relate to someone living with depression (mostly in terms of how deeply unkind Joy's insistence that Sadness hide herself and tamp-down her "unwanted" expression; but I'm almost certainly unqualified to explore that (looking forward to hearing from those who do, though. There's a perfect (if wrenching) segment where the questing Emotions encounter Riley's despondent, mostly-forgotten imaginary friend (a perfectly-cast Richard Kind) that packs the entirety of INSIDE OUT's philosophy into a single exchange: Joy's relentless-optimism offers him no solace, but he's able to soldier on once Sadness talks things out with him, agrees that his situation is sad and empathizes. THE CARE BEARS, this is not - and it's happening amid a stretch of the film that was already jumping from one metaphoric gut-punch (a "younger" section of Riley's Imagination is being bulldozed) to another amid the infrequent psychology-pun (a literal "Train of Thought," the heroes find themselves losing dimensionality as Riley's mind attempts to deconstruct abstractions.)
The other Emotions aren't afforded quite as much depth, though that feels like both the point and a necessary function: When you're building an entire movie around a "payoff" that involves characters coming to terms with being sad, some broadly-realized comic relief is nice to have onhand (plus, can an 11 year-old suburbanite's concepts of Fear and Anger be deep enough to be especially dark?) to brighten up what could be the most relentlessly-downbeat (Western) kid's movie since THE LAND BEFORE TIME. They also have the effect of reminding us of how Headquarters functions, which is both vital for an extended credits gag imagining what the HQ's of other secondary characters look like and for a pair of telling glimpses into the HQ's of Riley's parents - pay close attention to which (non-Joy) Emotion is sitting in the Captain's Chair in each instance.
Meanwhile, I was surprised at how realistic and, well, ordinary Riley, her parents and the human world in general are allowed to be. It's the correct stylistic and narrative choice (the mind-world has to remain consistently more interesting so that we'll stay invested in the otherwise nebulously-defined "survival" of the Emotions), but one could easily imagine a lesser studio sending back pages of notes asking "Aren't these people a little boring?" or "Can we add some kind of external crisis other than basic universal growing-pains?" But the bold decision works - at one point, an otherwise humdrum conversation between Riley and a back-home friend takes a turn for "devastating to an 11 year-old" land, and the juxtaposition with the panicking Emotions sells the hell out of it.
I won't lie: INSIDE OUT destroyed me, even as it ultimately built me back up, and I'm given to wonder if it's brave commitment to "Sometimes you just NEED to feel bad" as a moral is going to lead to some decidedly unhappy parents come the weekend: There's a Bambi's Mom-level character-exit in Act 3 that's going to annihilate kids of a certain disposition, however poignant and meaningful its presence in the narrative is (it would've sent Disney-age me scrambling to escape the theater, no two ways about it) and while there are comedic/action-oriented diversions to scenarios like a "Dream Production" studio layed-out like a Hollywood backlot or a prison for nightmares, there's a surprising lack of songs or extended gag-sequences to break up the recurring "loss of memories" sequences that get every bit as emotionally-harrowing as the similar scenes in ETERNAL SUNSHINE OF THE SPOTLESS MIND.
Still, I can't fault a movie for doing what it sets out to do, and in terms of being an existentially-uplifting movie about the need to be sad, INSIDE OUT is as close to a masterpiece as Pixar has produced since WALL-E. Yes, it's probably going to reduce kids and parents alike into exhausted, sobbing puddles; but it also wants to send you home feeling okay about that. It's a movie that wants to prove that a good cry can be exilihrating and ultimately therapeutic, and spends it's runtime doing exactly that. This will almost-certainly end up being one of the year's best films, and you owe yourself a viewing. Preferably with discreet seating and tissues.
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