You’re entering a dimension within the realms of the human mind. A sub-psychological space where the emotional state of an 11 year old girl, Riley, is in the hands of 5 emotions. In this bizarre reality, Riley is caught in a crisis of the mind when her core memories are lost and she loses the vital connections to her own personality; it is up to Joy and Sadness to restore her memories while Fear, Anger and Disgust try to hold her mind together. This is a dimension which we call… The Twilight Zo- I mean, Inside Out.
Unlike a lot of animated films, Inside Out has the added benefit of a supremely talented and renowned group of actors providing the voices. Normally you get one or two big names to stock on top of the poster, but this movie has five strong comedy contenders bringing the funny. Amy Poehler in particular stands out as Joy, reviving her super-enthusiastic Parks and Rec character Leslie Knope with an eccentric dynamic that gels so well with an animated film. Bill Hader, the voice of Fear, was one of the actors who added his own lines to the movie, providing his own flavour of hyperactivity that worked so well in his last animated gig on the Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs franchise. Phyllis Smith, Lewis Black and Mindy Kaling round off the group nicely, contributing their own schizophrenic back and forths.
If you’re making a film based inside the human mind, there’s an abundance of abstract material to take advantage of, especially if you’re making a comedy. Universal foibles, common dreams and all too familiar emotional flaws – all the kind of dynamite fodder that smart stand-up comedians leap on – find a good home in this film. As a kid-friendly movie, It would have been easy to rely on puns and visual comedy to support the film’s 90 minute plot. Don’t get me wrong, those jokes are in there – and they work brilliantly. But the reason the “train of thought” gag doesn’t fall flat is because it can play off of ambitious and somewhat smarter jokes like the abstract thought room, which uses the four levels of abstract expressionism as the basis for a thoroughly gratifying bit.
It’s debatable whether Pixar films should get extra points for high threshold drama (translation: making me and my girlfriend cry), since it’s become something of a company and industry standard for animated films. However, Inside Out does have the added layer that these satisfying emotional moments double as self-reflections, telling us something about the complex, at times suffocating but equally life-affirming voices inside our own heads.
Having a solid, five-strong cast leading an animated film is a double edged sword. Sure, you’ve got a lot of talent, but it’s almost invariably all in the same scene. That’s a lot of punch-lines all trying to land in a very short space of time. A lot of the time it works and the rampant pacing pays off with big laughs, but when everyone’s trying to be funny at once it can sometimes dissolve into incomprehensible and irritating cries for attention.
It also means that some actors get given rough gigs. Poehler and Smith are in the foreground and their characters are given multiple dimensions and plot-driven depth. The others aren’t quite so lucky: Mindy Kaling gets in a few good digs as Disgust, but she doesn’t really get a chance to land any memorable lines or make standout contributions to the story, at least not until the end. Lewis Black‘s Anger is a favourite as all disgruntled animations are, but he’s a little too plot-dependent. Almost every step on Riley’s road to crisis is caused by Anger getting hot headed and causing trouble, almost invariably by screaming and pushing some levers. It’s fair to say that Inside Out is more than a little guilty of this kind of repetive plot behaviour, but luckily the characters can always rely on external gags like the Triple Dent Gum commercial to give them a break from the routine.
If you don’t feel like going to see a comedy or a “kids” movie, maybe because you’re a bit mopey or cynnical, Inside Out might just be a good idea all the same. The latest Pixar homerun is a dramatic, evenly paced probe into how our brains work and more often than not how they don’t work. The laugh-per-scene ratio is high, especially for adult viewers who get rewarded with more than their fair share of comedic Easter eggs, and the comedy-drama split is perfectly balanced throughout, as demonstrated by the tag-team effort of Joy and Sadness to bring their own brands of humour and pathos. Make no mistake, Inside Out will be the most entertaining therapy session you’ve ever had, and manages to look damn near gorgeous at the same time.