Of all the words we film critics are sometimes guilty of incorporating into our reviews, “original” most certainly tops the list. Why are we ever compelled to use that word when the entire history of narrative tradition teaches that there’s no such thing as an original story, that there are only variations? I ask this because Disney/Pixar’s Inside Out, in which we enter the mind of a young girl and meet personifications of her five emotional states, has been deemed by some as a blatant ripoff of Herman’s Head, a semi-forgotten 1990s American sitcom in which personified emotional states guided the title character through his daily life. There’s no questioning that the basic concept has been recycled. But can’t the same be said about romantic comedies, or slasher films, or action extravaganzas? Originality has nothing to do with it; it has everything to do with whether or not you enjoyed what you watched.
I enjoyed Inside Out tremendously, not for its originality so much as for being clever, funny, poignant, imaginative, and intelligent. It’s also surprisingly complex, which isn’t to say that it’s confusing or abstract; in its examination of the psyche, it taps into subjects that are both scientific and philosophical, giving us a great deal more to think about than it might initially seem. Younger audiences are unlikely to so thoroughly deconstruct and analyze this film, I admit, but the smart character development, engaging plot, and wonderful 3D animation are such that I’m quite certain they won’t find it boring. The kids that attended the Monsters University screening in 2013 seemed bored to tears, and no wonder – precious few children can relate to the realities of going to college and applying for a job. To digress for a moment, my unfavorable reaction to Monsters University caused a minor uproar in my immediate circle. In time, I took solace in the fact that it was snubbed by both the Hollywood Foreign Press and the Academy.
The central characters of Inside Out are “eleven-year-old” hockey player Riley Anderson (voiced by Kaitlyn Dias) and the emotions within her head that keep her life balanced. Of these emotions, the leader is the pixie-esque Joy (voiced by Amy Poehler), who, as her name implies, makes it her mission to keep Riley happy and positive. Then there’s Anger, a squat red figure in a business suit. He is, of course, always grumpy, and when he loses temper, he screams as flames erupt from the top of his head. He’s voiced by comedian Lewis Black, whose manic, vitriolic stage persona has not only earned him a devoted following but also makes him the perfect casting choice for this particular film. There’s Disgust (voiced by Mindy Kaling), the green-skinned embodiment of the snotty teenage girl, always snubbing her nose at everything with an off-putting sarcastic demeanor. There’s Fear (voiced by Bill Hader), a panicky purple goofball whose job is to keep Riley safe from anything potentially harmful.
Finally, there’s the blue-skinned Sadness (voiced by Phyllis Smith), and naturally, she mopes about, apologizes for just about everything she does, and remembers key events in Riley’s life very differently than the others. She and her emotional companions run a control center that represents Riley’s brain; when one of them gets control of the knobs and buttons of a console, she will in turn react accordingly. Part of their job is to collect and organize all of Riley’s memories, which present themselves in the form of glowing yellow glass spheres. A select few core memories are preserved in a central container, while all the others become long term, getting filed away in a vast, seemingly endless maze of shelves located outside the control center. As time goes on, many of the long term memories get dim and are sucked away to a seemingly bottomless trash pit, where they will eventually fade away, as many memories are wont to do.
The plot involves the emotions trying to keep Riley in check as she and her parents (voiced by Diane Lane and Kyle MacLachlan) move from Minnesota to San Francisco. A mixup at central control dumps Riley’s core memories out into the halls of her mind; it’s up to Joy and Sadness, who both get sucked away from the control room, to recapture those core memories and make it back to the control room before all of her personality islands – which include Family, Goofiness, Friendship, and such – crumble into the trash pit below.
Along the way, they will encounter Riley’s old imaginary friend, Bing Bong (voiced by Richard Kind), a pink elephant-like creature, and have to venture into unexplored areas of Riley’s brain, including the dark basement of the subconscious, a whimsical imagination land, and the bizarre room of abstract concepts, where odd shapes are deconstructed. Meanwhile, Anger, Disgust, and Fear are left up in the control room, doing their best to guide Riley through her moody, rebellious funk.
It’s never adequately explained why it is that Sadness is the only one whose touch can change the quality of Riley’s memories, or why she’s always compelled to touch any and all of them. However, Inside Out is wise in its observation that not all memories can remain joyful – not if the intention is to move on with your life and make new memories, especially during the transition from adolescence to young adult. We’re told this in ways that are both funny and touching.
During some of the funnier scenes, we actually go into the minds of other characters, including Riley’s parents (where the divide between male and female thought processes is made clear), a teenage boy (whose emotions chaotically run around as an alarm rhythmically screeches out “Girl! Girl! Girl!”), and even a cat (where, not surprisingly, we find that nothing much is going on). These moments are funny because they’re based on truth, but more to the point, they’re relatable. The fact that the Pixar people understood this gives me hope that disappointments like Cars 2 and Monsters University were mere lapses in judgment.