I recall a conversation I had with a friend when the Pixar film “Up” first came out. He dismissed it with a sigh, saying, “It’s just another tasteful, quality Pixar film.” I think I understand what he meant: As the Pixar films grow in sophistication, concept and renown, are they overshooting in their mission to instill quality in children’s entertainment, by lacking in pure, essential fun? Are they just too good, and therefore kinda boring? If “Minions” is cotton candy, is “Inside Out” kale?
My 9-year-old daughter and I saw “Inside Out” together and our experience mirrored that of every other parent I’ve talked to who saw it, which is that my kid liked it, but I loved it. She giggled; I wept. While blue-haired characters romp through a gingerbread land in the world of a child’s imagination, I was suspended in anticipation of the sadness creeping in.
And actually, beautifully, that is what the film is about — sadness as an emotion to be embraced rather than avoided. In the central conceit, we observe the colorful emotions personified — Joy, Sadness, Disgust, Fear and Anger — controlling the mind of 11-year-old Riley, a happy, well-adjusted child who has an emotional meltdown when her family moves from Minnesota to San Francisco. Their moving van gets lost, her father faces major stress, but Riley’s parents praise her for remaining their happy little girl. As always, Joy is primarily in control.
Joy (Amy Poehler) thinks Sadness is a bummer, and tries to gently steer her out of the picture whenever possible. Remembered emotions are stored as clear orbs (kind of like in “Minority Report”) and a few core memories form the bedrock of Riley’s personality and values, like times spent with friends, family, playing hockey and being silly. But as she moves on and grows up, Sadness touches the memories. The film ultimately shows us that this is not a catastrophe, but just part of growing up.
The move creates Riley’s most serious crisis to date, and Joy kicks her attempts to control into overdrive. In a desperate effort to squelch Sadness, the two emotions both get accidentally swept from the control room into the depths of Riley’s subconscious. Here, some truly stunning and memorable sequences take place.
I particularly loved the perilous journey through abstract thought, when the characters pass through stages of abstraction until they are simply straight lines. Whether you find this clever or too clever is up to you, but you really have to read Richard Brody’s take on this film for The New Yorker (June 25 issue) for a compelling and decidedly anti-Pixar position. For starters, he bemoans the lack of several key emotions in the girl’s brain, notably a “BS Detector.”
I found “Inside Out” soulful and profound, and it gave my daughter and me a lot to talk and think about together. But at the end of the day, it wasn’t a Pixar masterpiece; maybe it was more like an after-school special about growing up, with extremely high production values and a great cast. “Inside Out” was creative, insightful, beautiful and moving, but it was not hilarious; indeed, it might have benefited from a few fart jokes, because it did fall victim somewhat to its own impeccable taste. I’ll never love it like I do “Toy Story,” and certainly my kids won’t.