"Inside Out" Likable But Supremely Addled

Pared down to its most basic elements, Disney•Pixar’s “Inside Out” is cute and creative, outwardly making good on the studio’s history of vibrant animated fare. The pic’s tagline – Meet The Little Voices Inside Your Head – tells most of the story, its screenplay splitting time between the daily life of a little girl (Riley) and her emotions, anthropomorphized.

Joy (Amy Poehler, NBC’s “Parks And Recreation”), Sadness (Phyllis Smith, NBC’s “The Office”), Fear (Bill Hader, “Saturday Night Live”), Disgust (Mindy Kaling, “The Mindy Project”), and Anger (stand-up comedian Lewis Black) staff the inner workings of Riley’s brain, but it’s a world that seems boundless, as it should.

Riley’s gray matter is also comprised of islands that stand as different aspects of her personality. From her relationship with her parents (voiced by Diane Lane and Kyle MacLachlan) to her affinity for hockey, all is well in this expanse of childhood wonder – until Riley’s family ups and moves from Minnesota to San Francisco, California.

What follows is a bit formulaic, which is to be expected, but also pretty confounding. In the case of “Inside Out,” ignorance is bliss, but since the film’s nature is to make us think, it ends up a house of cards long before a literal house of cards shows up on screen.

Writer-director Pete Docter raises tons of questions his movie can’t answer, culminating in the realization that everything Riley does is a paradox. It’s inevitable that an animated children’s film would deal in metaphors, but since there is no real evidence that Riley has agency over her emotions – or vice versa – she shouldn’t be doing anything at all. It’s this circular logic that’s the crux of the film – and it nearly cripples it.

More questions abound. Why does Sadness take pleasure in a sad movie? Why is Joy capable of crying? What do the filmmakers mean by their off-handed assertion that Fear is what keeps human beings safe? Most kids are far too smart to not notice that Riley’s long-lost imaginary friend Bing Bong (Richard Kind) inexplicably exists on the same plane as her core emotions. Even as metaphor it’s sloppy.

There are spots that ooze imagination, like a literal Train Of Thought as a transportation device and dream production being visualized as a movie studio backlot.

But either the movie doesn’t know the difference between cause and effect or it doesn’t care. In streamlining what it means to be human without much in the way of explanation, the movie is forced to rely on coincidence to move its story forward. When Riley loses the ability to play hockey because of a misplaced memory ball, it’s distressing. Not out of consideration for the character, but in its baffling simplicity.

Again and again “Inside Out” veers alarmingly close to being “Pop Psychology: The Movie,” reducing us to our most basic elements and commodifying them. Its characterization issues only exacerbate the problem – what makes Anger angry? – inherently telegraphing how each emotion will act throughout the course of the film. Until they don’t, which is when things get really confusing.

Step past the colors and predictably sweet story beats and you’ll find an idea without a film to call home – an idea not as original as some have trumpeted (see: “Osmosis Jones,” “The Fantastic Voyage,” Canadian book and television series “The Magic School Bus”).

Anyone keen on grappling with big, broad ideas like free will and the human condition during a kids movie will be richly rewarded, as will really young audiences. The movie is frequently adorable. But it’s liable to create more than a few existential crises in viewers entirely unprepared to handle them.

“Inside Out” certainly passes the “it’s just a kids movie” test, but Pixar has proved themselves capable of so much more. “Toy Story” this isn’t. Not even close.

-J. Olson

Rating: ★★ 1/2 out of ★★★★★ (Mediocre)

Release Date: June 19, 2015
Studio: Disney•Pixar
Director: Pete Docter, Ronaldo Del Carmen
Screenwriter: Pete Docter, Meg LeFauve, Josh Cooley
Starring: Amy Poehler, Bill Hader, Lewis Black, Mindy Kaling, Phyllis Smith, Diane Lane, Kyle MacLachlan
MPAA Rating: PG (for mild thematic elements and some action)