Inside Out: Voice Inside Your Head

“It’s tough to get old.” I grew up hearing my mother sporadically spew those words whenever my sisters or I were confronted with the pitfalls of aging. A zit erupts on your nose the night before picture day? Grab some makeup because it’s tough to get old. You didn’t get into your dream college? Apply to a safety school because it’s tough to get old. Your knee is creaking whenever you run? Grease that baby up because it’s tough to get old.

No film captures the emotional turmoil of growing up quite like Disney and Pixar‘s new feature-length film Inside Out, in theaters nationwide June 19.

Sadness, Anger, Fear, Disgust, and Joy in a scene from Inside Out. Image courtesy of Walt Disney Studios.

The story follows 11-year-old Riley (voiced by Kaitlyn Dias) as she moves from Minnesota to San Francisco. Though the motivating conflict is external, this film is thoroughly internal as the audience becomes acquainted with Pixar’s personifications of Riley’s five key emotions: Joy, Sadness, Disgust, Anger, and Fear.

Joy (Amy Poehler) is accustomed to being in control. Since day one, she’s gleefully steered Riley through life—with occasional help from her compatriots. After Riley relocates to San Fran, however, Sadness (Phyllis Smith) becomes more prominent. She begins to touch Riley’s core memories, throwing the young girl’s personality and behavior out of whack. When Joy and Sadness find themselves removed from headquarters (the place in Riley’s brain where her emotions inform her perception of the world), they must work together to return and to bring equilibrium to Riley’s life.

Mom, Riley, and Dad eat dinner in their new home in San Francisco in a scene from Inside Out. Image courtesy of Walt Disney Studios.

Whereas many children’s animated movies have about as much depth as a discount kiddy pool, Inside Out is overflowing with perspicacity. It comes from the same minds who gave us Up, so it’s no surprise that this flick is packed with tear-jerking moments. But all this emotion is in perpetuity of Inside Out‘s greater goal: to illustrate that as one ages, emotions mature and that means taking the positive feelings with the negative ones.

The film itself does this by balancing sorrow with humor. And there is a lot of humor. It all starts with Riley’s birth and the subsequent birth of her feelings. So, let’s begin with those emotions, all of which are perfectly cast.

As Joy, Amy Poehler buzzes with effervescence. Whether she’s complimenting herself on her outfit or greeting the day with an accordion jig, she’s always focused on finding the fun. Joy is the first feeling to form—though she’s joined 33 seconds later by Sadness—and she has the most difficulty adjusting to Riley’s evolving emotional vocabulary. When Joy meets sorrow, the audience feels Poehler coming to terms with Riley’s lost childhood. And that loss hits hard.

You might remember Phyllis Smith from her role on The Office. As Sadness, Smith transforms into the quintessential grey cloud, offering up advice like “We could cry until we can’t breath.” Sadness is used to having her negative tendencies placated by Joy, but Riley’s move constitutes a major shift in her emotional paradigm, a shift that requires Sadness in order to find stability.

Joy observes a core memory that Sadness turned blue in a scene from Inside Out. Image courtesy of Walt Disney Studios.

Director Pete Docter recently spoke to Fresh Air with Terry Gross about why Sadness is such a key character. He said: “We were wrestling with these two different themes of growing up and then embracing sadness. … If you’re sad, it’s a way of connecting with other people and a lot of times, we sort of feel embarrassed about being sad and we go off by ourselves to hide and cry by ourselves, but really it’s a way of re-establishing relationships.”

Of course, no one feels joyful or sad at all times. Enter Disgust (Mindy Kaling), Fear (Bill Hader), and Anger (Lewis Black).

Kaling, who has honed her penchant for sarcasm and side-eyeing in The Office and her eponymous series The Mindy Project, evokes Disgust to a tee—though her chic A-line dress and 1960s-inspired neckerchief suggest otherwise. Disgust’s main concern is to get Riley looking good and feeling great. She besmirches broccoli and hones in on the cool girls in class, cooing that, yes, we want to be in their group, but, no, we can’t just walk up and talk to them.

Bill Hader’s Fear is less of a horror-movie fanatic and more of an antsy worrywart in an argyle sweater. He aims to keep Riley safe, whether the threat is a misplaced extension chord or the teacher calling on her in class. Hader’s vocal range and manipulation give the character buoyancy; few actors can find as many amazing means to scream as Hader does in this film.

Finally, there’s Lewis Black’s Anger. Black is basically the godfather of angry standup comedy, so this particular casting choice was truly genius. Anger controls Riley’s sense of fairness and is quick to put his foot down if justice isn’t served. In the world of Anger, the decree of ‘no dessert’ is headline news. It might just be me, but I feel as if Black’s Anger emotes the most out of all the characters. When his head bursts into flames, I can see Black shaking with violence in my mind’s eye.

Anger erupts in a scene from Inside Out. Image courtesy of Walt Disney Studios.

Docter takes pains to make Riley’s inner world as vivid as her outer. From the Dream Production studios reminiscent of Paramount to her Imagination Land where french fries grow like tries, Docter clearly urged his animators to let their own Imagination Lands flourish.

However, one of the most rewarding aspects of the film is when we briefly enter the minds of other characters. In Riley’s mom’s interior life, Sadness is at the helm. In her dad’s, it’s Anger. In the snooty pizza server’s, it’s Disgust. These subtle changes illustrate how idiosyncratic our own emotions are, even if the base characters are the same.

All of this speaks to Inside Out‘s universal narrative. Pixar excels at making movies that kids and their parents want to see, but Inside Out takes it a step further by focusing on a compelling evolution that everyone will experience at one point or another. And that’s something to smile about.

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