Pixar has wowed us before, but this is the first time they’ve adapted one of my wish-list items into a major motion picture. With their new spectacle Inside Out I finally got that Parks and Rec/The Office crossover I’ve been imagining in my head for years. Amy Poehler’s Joy basically is Leslie Knope — she has the unlimited zest, the relentless positivism, the stubborn refusal to accept dissent, and the disturbing attachment to large binders. Phyllis Smith’s Sadness and Mindy Kaling’s Disgust represent for an animated Dunder Mifflin exactly as they would in live-action, but without the guys around to get in their way. It’s probably for the best that NBC didn’t force the showrunners into a crossover years ago, and instead let it happen organically when the time was right. I’m just thrilled that it came to pass in my lifetime.
Short version for the unfamiliar: In the film’s symbolic representation of consciousness, every sufficiently advanced brain is managed by a committee of five inner voices: Joy, Sadness, Disgust, Fear, and Anger. A hockey-loving 11-year-old girl named Riley is blessed with the supremely funny quintet of Councilwoman Knope, Phyllis Lapin-Vance, Kelly Kapoor, comedian Lewis Black, and ex-SNLer Bill Hader. They take turns running Riley’s control panel, stockpiling memories and navigating everyday encounters according to their assigned roles. This established system of checks and balances works well when everyone is allowed to do their part. Sometimes they act alone; at other times they collaborate and instill other emotions as a sort of synthesis from those basic five. When power shifts too far in one direction, that’s how attitudes and dysfunctions happen.
All is well inside Riley’s head until one of those pesky Major Life Events comes along that tends to spin us around and send us reeling, when her family uproots and moves from Minnesota to San Francisco. Unfortunately for Riley’s mental well-being, her five feelings aren’t prepared to manage the transition.
Hey, look, it’s that one actor!: Other famous names inside Riley’s head include ’80s comedian Paula Poundstone and current SNLer Bobby Moynihan as mind maintenance; old-school Muppeteers Frank Oz and Dave Goelz as mind guards; and Spin City‘s Richard Kind in a wonderful VIP role as the film’s answer to Wheezy from Toy Story 2. Riley’s parents are Kyle MacLachlan and Diane Lane. A few other big names have one-line cameos, including another Parks & Rec vet I’ll have to catch next time I see it.
As always, Pixar mainstay John Ratzenberger is up in there, but good luck spotting him in his lone scene without cheating. I’ll admit I failed.
Meaning or EXPLOSIONS? Entire psychological theses could be written about the various interactions between the emotions. The crux of the conflict is between Joy and Sadness. Joy thinks happiness is and shall always be the one and only true way to be, and that Sadness should go stand in the corner and stay there till the host body dies. Sadness doesn’t know why she is the way she is, but she knows she can’t just stand there and watch idly while everyone else performs their parts. With age and experience, the role of Sadness makes more sense, but pretending Sadness isn’t there can be harmful to the psyche.
Results vary depending on who’s on duty. When Anger and Disgust team up, Riley’s at her most toxic. When Fear flails around at the helm, he can shield Riley from harm or make matters worse. Meanwhile in the background, their efforts and Riley’s interactions determine various aspects of her personality, represented by their own separate motif. An unguided walking tour takes us through virtual stand-ins for memories, dreams, wishes, forgetting, repression, and unwanted irrepressible soundbites. On each of those paths lies another set of essays and some light spoilers, but suffice it to say all that internal geography is wholly dependent upon the success or failure of the emotions’ job performance.
And those key five are so vividly embodied (especially Sadness, who could’ve been a one-note Eeyore but is so much more), I’m not surprised to see some folks online already beginning to define their own thoughts and actions through the lens of these characters. I did it to myself for a while the next day at work, analyzing my reactions to coworkers and other stimuli, trying to imagine which emotions were calling the shots and tag-teaming my cranial control panel. At first I was amusing myself, but I had to knock it off when it escalated into introspective darkness.
Nitpicking? If you delete all the mindscapes and reduce Inside Out to a human-scenes-only supercut, the humans alone are kind of banal. To an extent, that’s the point: even our most predictable outer moments can belie vast inner turmoil. Riley’s universal moments are frequently subject to group debate before she acts or reacts. Even reflex responses aren’t simple or instant. So if everyone on the internet would agree not to make that supercut, that’d be fine by me and let’s all forget it occurred to me.
On the other hand, Riley’s standard preteen life is high young-adult literature compared to her parents, whose biggest scene was featured in one of the trailers and lowered my initial expectations to a Cars 2 level. Even in context, her dad’s mind’s clichéd embodiment of “MEN BE SO DUMB AM I RITE” humor did nothing for me. Thankfully it’s confined to just the one scene and another fleeting glimpse or two.
Near the end, Sadness manifests a new, unexplained super-power that would’ve come in immensely handy an hour earlier and saved Riley a spate of problems. I’d like to think there’s a deleted scene showing its sudden genesis.
Also, I’d love to hear the in-story explanation of how a random jokey reference to a disturbing, 40-year-old Jack Nicholson film found its way inside an 11-year-old’s head. Maybe Jung’s “collective unconscious” theory extends to pop culture references randomly transferring into the intellects of those who wouldn’t get them, but it’s a little jarring considering the film otherwise keeps such specific gags to a bare minimum.
So did I like it or not? Those are all itty-bitty nits in a complex, evocative tapestry. Beyond the intricate interactions that smartly embody the crushing difficulties of simply growing up, Inside Out pulls off the clever trick of creating and sustaining conflicts without a single evil antagonist. There’s no sinister force possessing Riley, no untoward bullies or criminals menacing her in real life, no cackling germs or traitorous emotions trying to conquer the brain and become Riley’s head-emperor. Even without that standard movie device, potential dangers and consequences abound. If anything, it’s our lead character Joy who’s the most confounding for all involved and has the hardest lesson to learn. Strictly speaking, her dogged sunny side is the bad guy.
Inside Out is one of the year’s best films, the deepest, funniest comedy I’ve seen in years. It’s a beautifully animated juggling act of peppy slapstick, quick-witted badinage, trademark Pixar visual panache, and heartstring-yanking therapy for anyone who ever experienced and outlived a painful childhood issue. I could easily imagine Inside Out being used as a template for a nationwide line of Disney Psychiatry offices. For their first patients, I’d recommend they admit any moviegoer who dislikes or avoids the film on such sad grounds as “cartoons are dumb”, “psychology is hooey”, or “I hate anything without F-bombs.” If you’re among those constantly sniping at Hollywood to find new ideas and make something besides sequels or reboots, here’s your chance to support a truly multitudinous mold-breaker.
How about those end credits? There’s no scene all the way after the Inside Out end credits, but for the first few minutes we’re treated to a montage of other cerebral interiors. Amy Poehler and Bill Hader each apparently contributed enough improv to merit a buried “Additional Dialogue” co-writing credit, alongside Pixar staffer Bob Peterson. And if you stick around past the mandatory Production Babies list, which curiously includes four tots named Oliver, you’ll catch the crew’s collective dedication of the film to their kids with a special message:
“Please don’t grow up. Ever.”