Thursday, June 25, 2015

Film Review: Inside Out

This movie has stayed with me for days and has already become a small part of my metaphorical vocabulary.  Just the other day I felt badly for something, so I looked at my wife and said, "Sadness is in control now."

PIXAR has once again built up one of the most imaginative and resonant worlds with Inside Out.

The premise of the movie is that when we are born, we have sentient creatures running a little universe in our minds.  Think of Descartes' "ghost in the machine," except with 5 major emotions running the show: Joy (Amy Poehler), Sadness (Phyliss Smith), Disgust (Mindy Kaling), Fear (Bill Hader), and Anger (Lewis Black).  These emotions move you to action in the world.  And when you make memories, it is their job to store them away.  And some of the these memories become "core memories" that create an essential part of our personality.

The movie centers around the emotions living inside a young tween named Riley (Kaitlyn Dias).  She is a typical young girl living in the Midwest when suddenly she is uprooted with her mom (Diane Lane) and dad (Kyle MacLachlan) to urban San Francisco.  This makes it very difficult for Joy to maintain Riley's happy disposition and dominance over the other emotions, particularly the hangdog Sadness.  And when something happens to cause Riley to gain a new core memory that is marked by Sadness, not Joy, it leads to a chain of events causing Joy and Sadness to get lost in the deeper recesses of Riley's mind.  Now, Riley can only feel Fear, Disgust, and Anger, while Joy and Sadness try to make their way back to "headquarters."

To speak much more about the plot and what they encounter would take away a good deal of the fun to be had at this movie.  While other stories have tried to tackle the idea of fighting interior personalities (like the '90's TV show Herman's Head), I have never seen one that is so fully realized.  Everything in this movie is new and fantastic.  But the real genius is that it all seems way too familiar.  Every new turn explored in this world has the feeling of "Of course!" to it.  Why can't I remember all of the presidents?  Because unused memories literally get thrown away.  What do we do with our biggest fears?  We lock them away in a vault!
Inside Out makes tangible and concrete the ephemeral world of feeling and thought.  I have never seen a movie literally make such a good concrete representation of abstraction.

And this is also part of the fun of the movie: you can imagine this interior life within yourself.  I found myself imagining what my core memories were and if they were happy or sad or scary.  I imagined how studying made the literal train of thought from long-term memory to consciousness.  And I imagined how even now, different emotions vie for control of my current mental state.  Everything directors Pete Docter and Ronaldo Del Carmen rings true.

The voice talent for this movie is perfect.  Poehler has spent years playing the Pollyannaish Leslie Knope on Parks and Recreation, and she brings that same zanny enthusiasm to joy.  Smith also should get special mention as Sadness.  She is able (with the help of the animators) to makes Sadness lethargically dour without making her repulsive.  Instead of wanting to avoid Sadness, you want to put your arms around her and try to cheer her.  And while the rest of the cast a very good job, I should also mention the perfect casting of Lewis Black.  Normally, his shtick would be a distracting piece of stunt casting.  But I cannot imagine any other voice embodying Anger than his.

It makes sense that PIXAR would do a movie about emotions like this, since their movies are all about hitting you with an emotional punch.  The jokes are hysterical, the sad parts are heart-breaking, and the film is overall heart-warming.

And yet there is a deep pallor of sadness throughout the film.  This is not a criticism.  In fact, the film wisely raises the question: "Why do we even need Sadness?"  But the sadness here is not somber.  It's the sadness of growing up.  Growing up is a wonderful thing, especially for the child.  But for the parent, it is a different experience.  While still wonderful, watching you child put aside childish things is sad because you know that there is a part of that person that is lost forever.  I don't think any child who watches this movie will get that point.  But as an adult, I felt it with every frame.  But that sadness is not necessarily a bad thing.  How can sadness be good?  I'll let the movie answer that for itself.

As a Catholic, I love the depiction of this traditional family trying to make things work.  The marriage feels real and the child's perspective, where the problems of grown ups seem scary and distant, also felt real.  And I found it to be a stinging indictment of our society which tries to numb sadness.  That isn't to say our society is not emotional.  In fact is may be overly so.  But we want to distract and defuse our sadness so that we don't feel it.  We turn to alcohol, drugs, TV, the internet, and every other distraction to keep us from feeling the sadness inside.  But as I said before, this movie answers the question of why we NEED Sadness.  It reminded me of the verse from Oscar Wilde's "Ballad of Reading Gaol" :

"Oh happy they whose hearts and break and peace of pardon win!  How else may man make straight his path and cleanse his soul of sin? How else but through a broken heart may Lord Christ enter in."

And then maybe by allowing ourselves to really feel these things we will be more open to true Joy.

Inside Out is PIXAR's best movie since Toy Story 3 and it deserves to be as embraced.

4 and 1/2 out of 5 stars.


  1. I can't agree with this review more.

    1. I couldn't read the last word of your comment at first and I got all offended :)
      Thanks for the comment.