Movie review: Inside Out a happy head trip

Disney Pixar takes a long walk down an infinite pier of personal identity in Inside Out, an animated tour of developmental psychology that captures the pain of growing up using primary colours and Amy Poehler’s voice

Inside Out


Starring: Amy Poehler, Phyllis Smith, Richard Kind, Lewis Black, Bill Hader, Mindy Kaling, Kaitlyn Dias, Diane Lane, Kyle MacLachlan, Paula Poundstone, Flea, Frank Oz, Bobby Moynihan, Rashida Jones

Directed by: Pete Docter

Running time: 94 minutes

MPAA Rating: Parental Guidance

Plays with the short film Lava (4/5)

By Katherine Monk

Think of it as the colouring-book version of developmental psychology: a simplified take on everything from Sigmund Freud’s id to Jean Piaget’s concrete operational stage turned into a rainbow swirl of feelings.

That may not sound all that exciting or child-friendly, but director and Pixar vice-president Pete Docter has a talent for translating existential abstracts into primary-colour cartoons. Docter took the terrors under the bed and made them huggable and relatable in Monsters, Inc. Then he succeeded in turning a largely grown-up story of mortality and loneliness into an all-ages, Oscar-winning tearjerker with Up.

Inside Out doesn’t have the same dramatic dimensions as Up, or the fun buddy factor of Monsters, Inc, but it does rotate on the same axis of personal transformation, or what’s commonly called “getting older.”

A coming-of-age tale unlike any other, Inside Out ushers us inside the mind of Riley (Kaitlyn Dias),  an 11-year-old in the midst of a big life change. She grows up in Minnesota and is one of the best hockey players on her team, but then her family moves to San Francisco, where she’s suddenly alone.

From being a content, happy-go-lucky goofball, Riley starts morphing into a moody, sullen and forlorn preteen. It’s a familiar shift that strikes just about everyone moving through the hormone storm of puberty, but Docter takes us below street level and into the infrastructure of the subconscious to tell his story.

Unfolding inside the mental landscape of Riley’s head, Inside Out is an ensemble piece played out by Riley’s own emotions. The most dominant one is Joy (Amy Poehler), a glowing source of optimism who affects all the emotions who come near her, whether it’s Sadness (Phyllis Smith), Anger (Lewis Black), Disgust (Mindy Kaling), or Fear (Bill Hader).

Riley was born happy, and before the move to California she had five solid islands that formed her core personality: hockey island, friendship island, family island, goofball island and honesty island. These islands are solid structures that hover over the abyss called “memory dump” – where all the surplus information goes, as well as the occasional PIN number.

In some ways, the landscape Docter provides looks something like a Dali-designed nightmare – where giant clown faces and hockey sticks pop up on an otherwise empty horizon. It’s a little creepy, but you can’t have a good kids’ movie without conjuring the dark side, and Docter doesn’t turn away from the challenge.

In fact, he turns inward – pulling the whole drama into the surreal setting of Riley’s mind where the light and the dark are forced to cohabitate.

Joy likes to be in control at mind headquarters and she generally gets her way, but after the move, Sadness is suddenly playing a bigger role. She’s even taking some of Joy’s golden memories and turning them blue. Panicked, Joy decides to take matters into her own hands in a vain effort to save Riley’s core personality – but without Fear, Anger, Disgust or Sadness at her side, she’s stuck in a bubble of denial.

True happiness demands integration, and while a host of Psychology Today truisms doesn’t sound all that cuddly or compelling, Docter and his team cook up a poignant mix of family moments, observational humour and existential angst to create a script that is just as likely to make you laugh as cry.

True happiness demands integration, and while a host of Psychology Today truisms doesn’t sound all that cuddly or compelling, Docter and his team cook up a poignant mix of family moments, observational humour and existential angst to create a script that is just as likely to make you laugh as cry.

Both reactions are easy and unforced as result of the clever writing that captures the familiar signposts of maturation: negativity, self-loathing, blaming external forces and tempestuous bouts of self-righteous indignation.

Kids will be able to gain some creative distance from their own lives through the exercise, but what is more important, the movie reaffirms the idea of personal responsibility. Riley is overwhelmed by her feelings, but there is a control panel at HQ, and depending on which emotion she puts in charge, things either go well or they go to hell.

It’s a great message, and one that transcends all age and gender boundaries, but the best thing about Inside Out is the way these emotions literally reflect off each other – because each emotion has its own glow.

Intellectually, they appear to be separate, but visually we can see how all the emotions are connected and create our daily reality, which is where the movie courageously pushes some entirely abstract buttons.

For instance, in order to save the day, Joy and Sadness have to hop on the “train of thought” that chugs randomly around Riley’s cerebellum, spewing ad jingles and fragmented memories. At one point, they have to take a shortcut through abstractionism, where they are compressed into two Picassoesque dimensions and finally deconstructed.

Even if you haven’t read Jacques Derrida, you get the jokes because they’re rooted in intuitive truths, from sullen preteens and distracted parents to an all-out sense of grief over lost innocence. Moreover, the voice cast led by Poehler finds the right tone.

Trapped between aggressive perkiness and febrile nightmare, Inside Out takes us into the darkest recesses of selfhood and lets us laugh at the giant comedy called the human condition without a condescending pat on the head, or a single pill, crystal or counseling session.


How Sadness made Phyllis Smith the happiest lady in showbiz:… Read The Ex-Press interview:

The Happiest of Sadness

Phyllis Smith talks about Sadness with The Ex-Press film critic Katherine Monk. Read the full interview here.



“There are times when I wish I’d had real acting classes, but basically, with Sadness and the other roles I have played, I just follow what’s inside.”











User Rating

4 (3 Votes)



Inside Out: Amy Poehler leads a talented vocal cast as Joy, one of five emotions competing for control over an 11-year-old girl’s mind. Once a happy-go-lucky kid who loved hockey, Riley (Kaitlyn Dias) becomes sullen and moody when her parents move to a new city. Now her old buddy Joy (Poehler) has to find a creative way back to the control panel before Sadness turns all of Riley’s core memories blue. A smart script and some original ideas make for an interesting plot, but the visuals and the acting make Inside Out another poignant outing from the people at Pixar. Four stars out of five. – Katherine Monk

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