Something to pay attention to when you’re watching “Inside Out”: the way in which people try to hold back their tears in a movie theater by tilting their heads to the side slightly, as if holding their head at an angle acts as some sort of preventative measure against tears rolling down their face. Well, regardless of what angle we tilted our head, we cried a tsunami of tears while viewing the cerebral and kaleidoscopic “Inside Out.” But before delving into whys and hows of tearing up to Pixar’s latest, let’s get a little bit real about the studio’s diminishing returns as of late.
Despite its continued box office success, Pixar arguably hasn't produced a film worthy of its trademark since 2010's "Toy Story 3." That's not to say that the three films that have filled the gap in time since then, "Monsters University," "Brave," and "Cars 2," aren't worth watching, it's just that when put alongside immersive and original epics such as "WALL-E," "The Incredibles," "Up," and "Ratatouille," they seem more forgettable and hackneyed. Those films were a part of an almost 15-years-long run (give or take "Cars" but mostly, please take "Cars") where Pixar kept consistently one-upping itself. Having a couple of stinkers for any studio, regardless of prestige, is expected. Trial and error is a cornerstone to the filmmaking process. But three misses in a row, along with the announcement of an unnecessary "Finding Nemo" sequel debuting next year and a third "Cars" film on deck, is more of a sign of a decline in quality than growth and so, "Inside Out" is a return to form.
The conceit of "Inside Out" is that deep within our subconscious there is a colossal Rube Goldberg machine operated by cartoon manifestations of our emotions that control how we react to situations. The machine works like this: The emotions who work in the primary control center of this machine, Fear, Anger, Sadness, Joy, and Disgust, share the responsibility of maintaining this highly volatile Dr. Strangelove-esque happy-go-lucky emotional war room. Say, for example, someone on the street were to approach you and say, "Nice sweater, loser." The five emotions make it possible to have five potential outcomes. We can scream at this dude and stomp on his feet, we can cry, we can hide under a table and wait for him to go away, we can tell him that him sweater looks ugly too, or we can just shrug it off and make a joke out of it. This moment has an emotional attribution attached to it and once the emotion is attached, a spherical-shaped ball forms, resulting in the creation of a memory. The memory is then either sent up to Long-Term Memory, where it will remain idle, or it will go out to islands of personality that the subject has formed throughout their lifetime.
When Riley struggles at her new school, and fails to find even a sliver of happiness in her new home, one by one the personality islands fall into this gigantic void, where all disposed memories end up. Watching these really paramount symbols of adolescence plummet straight toward oblivion is simultaneously haunting and liberating. It feels like something that, as a child, might scare the piss out of us, but the message of losing old characteristics of one's personality as a means of developing new ones is an important one. Witnessing how emotion fluctuates via this animated conceit allows the viewer to look irreverently at the internal/external prevailing forces that guide our actions. And for Riley, that fluctuation occurs when Joy, the most fundamental emotion for Riley's happiness, and Sadness drift far, far, far off from the control center, leaving an inept combination of Disgust, Anger, and Fear to take charge. Joy and Sadness must journey through the colorful and disorienting contents of the subconscious, with the help of Riley's forgotten imaginary friend, Bing Bong (Richard Kind), to find their way back to the control center.
"Inside Out," directed by Pete Docter, is now playing.