The dedication that ends this film’s credits says simply –
‘This film is dedicated to our kids. Please don’t grow up. Ever.’
Yet few other children’s films have ever explored the pain of growing up so well. With subtlety and tenderness, this latest Pixar animated movie captures not only what it feels like to leave behind childhood – but the concern of a parent for their child navigating pre-adolescence.
And while there are laughs aplenty in the mix, this is also a story that will have you sobbing like the end of Old Yeller (1957).
Spirited 11-year old Riley (Kaitlyn Dias) has had an idyllic childhood in the Minnesotan countryside, raised by her loving parents (voiced by Diane Lane and Kyle MacLachlan). To the outside world Riley is a happy and fun-loving kid – while inside her head, her sense of Joy runs a tight ship keeping her other key emotions in line.
The central conceit of director Pete Docter’s story is that each of us make decisions in life based on the interactions of five key emotions – Joy, Sadness, Anger, Disgust and Fear. This is visualised by a bright and colourful inner-world, with distinct regions such as Headquarters, Long Term Memory, Dream Productions and Imagination Land. Part Disneyland theme park, part factory floor.
Amy Poehler stars as Joy, her irrepressible bubbliness bordering on obsessive, particularly when it comes to controlling the mind of her young charge. This, it turns out, feeds into the moral of the film. The other emotions boast voice actors with a similar comedic background to Poehler. Bill Hader, a Saturday Night Live alum, is Fear; Lewis Black, the famously short-fused stand-up comedian, appears as Anger; Mindy Kaling and Phyllis Smith, who both acted in the US remake of The Office, play Disgust and Sadness respectively.
It is a credit to these performers that their sense of comic timing helps balance the film, as Riley’s confusion and distress over a sudden family move to San Francisco feels painfully real and familiar.
By visualising her inner-emotional life through these cartoonish characters, Inside Out explores the vulnerability of Riley in ways a straight drama cannot.
A conflict between Joy and Sadness, who has spontaneously developed the ability to make Riley’s memories ‘sad’, leads to the two being ejected from Headquarters and lost in the mazelike Long Term Memory. This results in Riley seeming depressed and quick to anger, as Anger, Fear and Disgust are hopeless at managing the ‘controls’ in Headquarters.
Meanwhile Joy and Sadness are forced to work together, in a suitably apt analogy for letting children know it’s ok to be sad sometimes.
One scene in particular feels painfully true to life, with Riley’s mother asking her to try and stay upbeat for the sake of her stressed out dad.
Pete Docter’s output for Pixar to date includes Monsters Inc. and Up, two films that have explored the protectiveness of a guardian towards a child in refreshingly imaginative ways. Where Inside Out differs is its inspired decision to make Riley’s emotions a secondary order of parental influence, taking responsibility to guide the girl through maturing into a young woman.
That they are also Riley – her feelings given life as easy to merchandise animated characters – helps establish the double-perspective of the film. This is an animated movie that will entertain kids, while also possessing a lot of pathos for parents.
Oh, and when we meet Riley’s repressed imaginary friend Bing Bong, voiced by Richard Kind, wandering lost through her mind – prepare your tear ducts.
Inside Out is both sweet and smart in equal measures. As a modern piece of entertainment, it has a finely tuned sense of morality, with Docter crediting his Christian faith in interviews for much of his storytelling concerns. Take the kids and be ready to laugh – Bill Hader’s turn as Fear monitoring Riley’s dreams is a definite highlight – but make sure to bring along plenty of tissues too.
Image by Garth Jones.