Pixar succeeds with adult-oriented hit Inside Out

Life is like a long bike race: a grueling trek to the finish that consists of exhilarating ups, depressing downs, and moments of uncertainty where you feel like quitting. Inside Out takes place near the beginning, during the exhilaration period. This is a film about what happens when the training wheels come off and innocence is lost. There are bound to be some scraped knees, but we all get back to pedaling.

The plot could be told in a trite 10 minute short film: a young girl whose upbringing was driven by joy has to deal with overwhelming, conflicted emotions when she has to leave her friends behind to move to San Francisco, where she embarrasses herself at school during an emotional breakdown. The past fades, imaginary friends dissolve, and old companions evaporate into the fog of memory. What remains are feelings and emotions. You may not remember exactly what happened, but you’ll always know how you felt.

Inside Out is less concerned about the particulars of the situation — the story of the girl is generic and universal — and more embroiled in the emotions fighting behind it. That’s not just my own jibber jabber. This movie actually takes place inside an 11-year-old’s head as her five emotions (Joy, Anger, Fear, Sadness, and Disgust) attempt to navigate Riley’s ever-changing world.

This is an ambitious concept, but it’s clear that if you’re trying to look at this deeper layer throughout, not everything fits as a metaphorical representation of Riley’s psyche. At times this can be frustrating, but the film must be interpreted as a whole rather than considering each instance on its own.

The ensemble manages to form a fairly deep palette of characters, and a lot of this characterization is done through meticulous visual design. Although Riley’s external world is fairly banal and grounded, it accentuates the vibrancy and detail of the production design inside her head. Each feeling is modeled around preconceptions that we already associate with feelings: Joy is a star-shaped glowing beam of yellow light with lively big eyes; Sadness is short, blue skinned, chubby, and covered head to toe in a turtleneck. Each character has distinct details that make you recognize the feeling they represent even without any other factors.

If you thought Pixar had lost the magic from Wall-E, Up, Ratatouille, Toy Story, Monsters Inc. and The Incredibles, you can take solace; Inside Out is a welcome addition to that list. Without a doubt the funniest film they have ever made, this high-concept emotional rollercoaster takes a simple and familiar story and tells it with creativity and heart.

This is a film of great moments such as when Riley’s “facts and opinions” boxes get mixed up, or when the crew in charge of Riley’s long-term memory decide to not throw the annoyingly catchy gum commercial into the dump. There is also a slapstick bit that doubles as a history of abstract painting. Kids in the theatre were laughing, but this might be the most adult-oriented Pixar film to date.

Older audiences should be thoroughly wrapped up in this story about growing up and transitioning into a new part of life. The last line of dialogue, after Riley’s control board gets an upgrade with new buttons including swear words and puberty, is Joy saying, now that she’s 12, “what could possibly go wrong?”

We know there will be more memories, more buttons, and more sadness. Until we bike across the finish line, life’s going to put forks in the road and maybe even a few flat tires. The key is to learn how to manage our emotions, inside and out.