Inside Out

A bundle of Joy.

By Louis Balzani


  • You want to see one of the best animated movies in recent memory.
  • You’re looking to be entertained without being talked down to.
  • You have emotions and a beating heart.

Pack your things, kids. We’re going on a feel trip.

Movies truly are unlike any other medium. With larger budgets and a more condensed runtime as compared to TV, the silver screen provides a limitless canvas for creators bold enough to fully harness its capabilities. One studio with a rich history of doing just that is Pixar, and this time around, their creative teams use their imaginations to explore ours. Their newest magnum opus, Inside Out, proves to be one of their most ambitious yet, and I’m convinced that it ranks among the likes of Finding Nemo, Up, and Toy Story 3 as one of their best films ever.

11-year-old Riley finds her life in flux as she gets uprooted from her comfortable Minnesota home to move to San Francisco so her dad can work at a new start-up company. She’s not alone, though, as the five primary emotions that make up her mind are along for the ride: Joy, Sadness, Anger, Fear, and Disgust. Together, the emotions work to keep Riley happy and balanced, until a scuffle causes Joy and Sadness to get catapulted out of the “headquarters” of Riley’s mind. As the other three emotions contend with her day-to-day activity, Joy and Sadness scramble to make it back to headquarters as Riley’s personality literally crumbles around them.


Anthropomorphizing the human mind and its emotions is no easy task, yet director Pete Docter – the mastermind behind Monsters, Inc. and Up – knocked it out of the park; I can’t remember the last time I’ve seen a movie concept this intriguing realized this successfully. The film somehow touches on nearly every part of the human mind with energy and creativity to spare: dreams, the subconscious, long-term memory, and imagination all play an important role in the story, and they’re connected by a literal train of thought that treats them all as potential stops. The film’s ability to weave these complex psychological ideas into an engrossing story without getting too preachy or confusing is as illustrative of the quality of its storytelling as anything else I can think of. That fact that it then builds fully fleshed-out characters from something as abstract as an emotion is icing on the cake. It’s just genius.

While the film works on a macro level, Inside Out also specializes in subtlety, and those little touches go a long way in bringing the film’s jaw-droppingly creative world to life. As a child, Riley’s mind exists with Joy as its primary driving force; in her parents’ minds, all five emotions work in tandem as a functional team of response-builders. It so perfectly reflects our own evolution as we age – that youthful joy and wonder eventually gives way to more measured and diverse responses, for better or worse. A brief jaunt into a cat’s mind reveals most of its recent thoughts to be tinged with digust – because cats hate everything, of course. Fresher memories mingle with old, dying ones as Riley tries to repress them. It even finds time to mock how easily some of us confuse facts with opinions. Some of this borders on crude stereotyping, but the film keeps these jokes rooted in reality without ever spilling over into cartoonishness or laziness.


Ultimately, though, so much of the story plays out in service of explaining a child’s emotional volatility, and it’s here that Inside Out resonates most powerfully. It taps into the insecurities and fears we all felt growing up, when we were upset and angry and not quite sure why. It’s the universality found in those key formative years that allows the film to create more of those touching moments that Pixar specializes in, ones that blindside you with raw emotion no matter your age. The story sheds light on our own emotional fragility in clear, yet nuanced, ways, and though the script obviously has years of very hard work behind it, its observations feel nearly effortless.

There’s so much more I could talk about. The film’s visual style is absolutely gorgeous, with color, light, and texture leveraged in ways we’ve yet to see from computer animation. Michael Giacchino’s fitting musical score wrings even more humor and drama from the already-excellent script. The voice cast is spot on, with Lewis Black as Anger standing out as a particularly inspired choice. To say much more, though, would further deprive you of the chance to experience this amazing feat for yourself. Suffice it to say, then, that Inside Out bets heavily on the fact that audiences are willing to embrace a story that requires some thought to fully understand. The youngest of viewers may not fully comprehend the experience, but for the rest of us, the film is a stellar achievement and a poignant reminder that your frowns are just as important as your smiles. It’s a wildly, phenomenally creative ride, and it deserves the highest praise we can give it: watching and enjoying it over and over again. Go see it.