Ever since Disney released Aladdin in 1992, we’ve been living in the Second Golden Age of Animation. Aside from about five decades of breathing room, what sets our current heyday apart from that previous gilded era of Pinocchio, Dumbo, and Bambi isn’t just our fancier technology but also a richer sense of narrative sophistication. After all, when Robin Williams blasted out of his lamp like a big blue wish factory firing off rat-a-tat topical gags and celebrity impressions, he wasn’t just aiming at the film’s usual target audience of tykes, he was also aiming over their heads at the adults in the theater. Since then, no one has refined this double-barreled storytelling technique into art quite like the folks at Pixar. Time and again, the Bay Area studio aces the tricky high-wire act of cranking out kids’ movies that adults can also enjoy on a different—and deeper—level. Now, with their latest film, the transcendent and touching Inside Out, they’ve taken that approach a step further. They’ve made a movie that’s so smart and psychologically clever, it may leave little ones scratching their heads wondering why their parents are laughing so hard and getting so choked up. It’s the first film I know of that’s been marketed to kids, but is in actuality made for grown-ups.
Directed by Pete Docter, the maestro behind Monsters, Inc. and Up, Inside Out takes place almost entirely inside the head of an 11-year-old Keane-eyed girl named Riley (voiced by Kaitlyn Dias), whose happy life is thrown for a loop when her family moves from idyllic Minnesota to unwelcoming San Francisco. Because she has to make new friends and go to a new school—and because she’s, well, 11—Riley’s mind is going through some tumultuous changes. And that’s where we meet the movie’s moody menagerie of color-coded characters. Laid out like the sterile control room of the starship Enterprise, this nerve center is dominated by the irrepressible Joy (a bubbly blue-haired pixie voiced by Amy Poehler) and rounded out by Fear (Bill Hader, a high-strung purple beanpole), Anger (Lewis Black, perpetually on the brink of blowing his red top), Disgust (an eye-rollingly sarcastic Mindy Kaling), and Sadness (The Office’s Phyllis Smith, who frumps and frowns like Debbie Downer—wah-wah—and almost steals the show).
Docter and his fellow screenwriters Meg LeFauve and Josh Cooley take this daring, conceptually abstract premise and tweak it into a battle royal for control over the tween’s evolving personality. Each emotion gets a turn in the driver’s seat depending on what Riley’s going through in her day-to-day life. And for the first time in Riley’s brief existence, it looks like Poehler’s Joy may not carry the day. There’s enough slapstick and silliness to keep kids entertained (including Richard Kind’s quickly-being-forgotten imaginary friend, the rainbow-colored elephant Bing Bong). But the film also has a bittersweet streak about the loss of innocence and the fleetingness of childhood. In the end, the message of Inside Out seems to be that sadness, as painful as it is, is not only unavoidable but essential to joy…and to Joy. A