Maybe there’s just something wrong with me? I remember hearing about how Up, director Pete Docter’s last film for Pixar would have me in tears in its opening act – it did nothing of the sort. Almost every article I’d seen about Inside Out prior to viewing it said the same kind of thing, even some people I saw in the lobby when buying a ticket, upon learning what I was going to see amiably warned me to ‘make sure I brought plenty of tissues’.
Well, I didn’t cry once during Inside Out, I didn’t even come remotely close to it. At least though, it’s a marked improvement on the last few Pixar movies; the trio of Cars 2, Brave and Monsters University that all fell so far below the standard of quality the studio’s earlier films had set. The time between Monsters University and Inside Out represents the longest gap between Pixar movies in many years, so this could be called something of a return to form, but it’s not up there with their best work.
Many of Pixar’s films have concerned worlds just out of sight of humans. Inside Out, goes further by taking place actually inside a girl’s mind. It’s a novel concept, and our main characters are anthropomorphised versions of the girl’s core emotions. These are Joy, Sadness, Fear, Anger and Disgust. As neat as an idea this was, my initial reaction was to question if these five are really our primary emotions, and that everything else is formed by some combination of these. Specifically, is disgust really one of our most important core feelings? It’s a question that the film basically answers by default in having almost nothing for that character (voiced by Mindy Kaling) to do. She’s superfluous, and could be entirely removed and have no bearing on the overall plot.
The five emotions spends their days manning the ‘control panel’ of the mind of an 11-year old girl named Riley, each taking over when they feel their response best handles her situation. While this scenario obviously raises a few questions about their daily life (they don’t want Sadness touching anything), it also allows Doctor and his animators to create a hugely imaginative world within her head. Their brilliant touches include memories being created and represented as small glass balls, each coloured to match the emotion attached to them. We are also introduced to the world outside of the control room, including vast archives where these memories are stored and the (literal) islands that make up parts of her personality.
Given the colourful environment Docter’s concocted, I’d have hoped for a little more than the fairly basic adventure story we get for most of Inside Out. Joy and Sadness get inadvertently sucked through a vent out of the control room and must find their way back; meanwhile Fear, Anger and Disgust must try to maintain control over Riley. In parallel to this is the ‘real world’ story of Riley moving away from her home town in Minnesota to San Diego, along with her general growing up.
Having Joy and Sadness sent out alone gives something of a more typical ‘buddy movie’ vibe, as these differing personalities must learn to get along for their mutual benefit. They’re mostly well matched in this sense and the film avoids the standard arc of them growing fond of each other after an initial dislike. Joy is voiced with an infectious enthusiasm by Amy Poehler, an effective if obvious choice for the role, it being very similar to her Parks and Recreation character. Anger (Lewis Black) and Fear (Bill Hader) also both get comic highlights, Fear’s running commentary of Riley’s dreams, appearing to him like a movie, and Anger’s reactions to an advert jingle are both very funny and creative touches. The stand-out voice work comes from Phyllis Smith as Sadness however, who becomes more prominent as the film progresses.
Unfortunately, not long after they are separated from the team, Joy and Sadness encounter a new character named Bing Bong (Pixar veteran Richard Kind). He’s supposed to be Riley’s imaginary friend who’s now hanging around in her memory archives as she’s got older. He joins them for a good chunk of the film and I did not like him one bit. He reminds me somewhat of Olaf from Frozen, a comic relief sidekick who’s supposed to be a product of one of our onscreen character’s childhood imaginations, and indeed feels aimed at the children in the audience. Like Olaf, I found him supremely irritating from the start, and similarly when he has a big emotional moment later on it did not work for me in the slightest. I was just happy he didn’t stick around for the whole movie.
I’m glad that the exterior struggle Riley is going through involved a change that was more easily relatable (moving cities) than if they opted for something very serious like the death of a parent, and that serves to the film’s advantage. However, I also feel that more could have been done to make Riley something of a character in herself. The aforementioned ‘islands of personality’, while a fantastic concept, also feel too few. Her whole character can be boiled down to four aspects; family, honesty, “goofball” and hockey. The hockey one stands out the most as it reeks of the film just needing something to make her slightly interesting so it hands her one hobby. It’s undoubtedly true that our interests change and evolve as we grow but there could surely have been more to her than this?
The humour in Inside Out contains some wonderful touches such as a joke about how a jar of ‘facts’ and ‘opinions’ get accidently mixed up, yet also on occasion succumbs to gags that I thought were below Pixar; there’s a blatant Chinatown reference that’s like the unnecessary ‘adults will get this’ tributes that plagued Madagascar.
Inside Out does present a beautifully positive message about memories, how they can ultimately have more than one emotion attached to them as we grow up, and that sadness is not something to simply try and always shut out. This is ultimately Inside Out’s biggest success, and more impactful than the primary adventure storyline. The film concludes with a scene that unlike most of what’s come before zooms into the minds of multiple human characters as they interact, showing a much wider variety of personalities. It was probably my favourite sequence in the film, and left me wondering what a story that used Inside Out’s world but involved multiple characters at different stages of their lives truly could have been. Still, I can see this film potentially growing in my estimations with a re-watch enabling more exploration of its subtler touches, but I can’t imagine ever liking Bing Bong.