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All This, and Popcorn Too? How the Film ‘Inside Out’ Justifies Teen Turmoil for a Broad Audience

Pixar just has a way of getting under movie-goers’ skin. Sure, the visuals are varying degrees of mind-blowing, the writing is among the best out there, and then there are those unforgettable zinger moments not usually found in “a kids movie.”

But Inside Out, which set a box-office record for domestic weekend openings at $91.1 million, dares to go even deeper than subdermal. It ventures into the invented and fantastical mind of Riley Anderson, a kind and adventuresome 11-year-old girl. Some scenes delve briefly into the working minds of Riley’s parents, as seen in the film’s trailer. Is it brilliant, or presumptuous, to set the entire story in this highly imagined landscape of a young woman’s interior and turbulent mind?

The ambition is definitely admirable, and directors/co-writers Pete Docter and Ronaldo Del Carmen manage to pull it off. Pixar has earned audience trust with Oscar-winning hits that tackle weighty themes: consumerism and existential isolation in WALL-E (2008), or grief and mourning a lifelong friendship in the accessible romp of Up (2009). Inside Out joins the herd of Pixar’s Trojan horses delivering hidden armies of critical issues: the loss of innocence, preserving self-hood, and redefining personal identity. Addressing these themes takes some doing, but building worlds to deliver a message is the Pixar trademark.

The conjured mind of Riley is a colorful, calculated locale, a sort of gumball factory where experiences since birth are stored in memories, appearing as glowing orbs. “Core memories,” like Riley’s first hockey goal, are a happy yellow, preserved in a whirring vault until the Headquarters in her brain project them onto the screen of her cognitive mind. This is the land of Oz to the fifth degree, without the fright of flying monkeys.

The command force operating Riley’s human responses is a five-member team of zany, anthropomorphized emotions. Led by irrepressible Joy (Amy Poehler), they include a volcanic Anger (comedian Lewis Black), a constantly worried and insipid Fear (Bill Hader of “Saturday Night Live”), a bespectacled and apologetic Sadness (Phyllis Smith), and Disgust (Mindy Kaling), the most original voice of the lot. At first glance, the simplistic reduction of this cast of characters seems too easy, too much like the “find your feelings” dolls in the arsenals of psychologists and ardently communicative mothers.

But, not surprisingly, Pixar did its homework, dedicating years of research with top professionals to get this right. Psychological jargon is used freely in this film: there are corridors of Long-Term Memory, functions of Reframing and Forgetting, a dark, eerie land called the Subconscious, and a Train of Thought (shown as a steaming “choo-choo”) that runs only during Riley’s waking hours. The most puzzling of these is the off-limits danger zone of Abstract Thought, where the protagonists progressively morph and nearly vanish into flat, two-dimensional shapes. This gets as weird as any trip filmgoers in the late 1960s might have seen in the Beatles’ Yellow Submarine.

The main story within this constructed world begins when Riley and her well-intentioned parents leave their home in Minnesota to start a new life in San Francisco. (Audiences will be relieved to see actual city sights, such as Lombard Street, “the Crookedest Street in the World,” exquisitely rendered in typical Pixar fashion.) We see the spirited commandos of Riley’s emotions in full operation as she faces real-life challenges: leaving childhood friends behind, finding disappointment in the new house and dad’s start-up venture, being the new kid in class. As rough circumstances build, teen confusion sets in.

Just when Joy’s “We can do this!” attitude starts to wear thin for characters and audience alike, things get even more interesting. Joy and Sadness, in some kind of kerfuffle, are ejected from HQ, and thus begins their journey to get back. The mind of Riley must operate without its chief commander, as Joy is nowhere to be found.

Although this development carries an unfortunate tonal quality of a Zoloft television ad, the bold depiction of Riley’s emotional struggle feels real. As other emotions are suddenly forced to cover in Joy’s absence, we see the inner workings of human emotional complexity. Riley becomes the disgruntled, eye-rolling, black-clad teenager, mouthing off (“Just shut up!”) to her baffled and powerless parents. With this, even the youngest audience members understand that complex feelings are normal, and maybe it’s OK to show the less popular emotions of anger, fear, and sadness. Older, wiser viewers can appreciate the deft handling in this depiction of complete emotional turmoil.  

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  • Roz Warren July 7, 2015 at 8:51 am

    Thanks for the review. I’m looking forward to seeing this one.

    Reply
  • Cheryl July 7, 2015 at 8:27 am

    Your article comes at a most interesting time. I am spending time with my 12 year old niece who would rather at this point be somewhere else. Along with that- is the “are you kidding”, “lashing out” the list goes on. I remember when I was 12, and I was probably worse. Oh to the loss of innocence as their many created acting out mind emerge… and hopefully grow into the beautiful women most of us turn out to be. Great article. CF

    Reply
  • B. Elliott July 7, 2015 at 7:53 am

    An incredibly incisive and articulate review. I will be sure to see this movie!

    Reply