Subscribe during February and save 50%.

Pixar’s Inside Out Is Pure, Heartbreaking Cinematic Magic (Review)

Pixar’s Inside Out is pure cinematic magic. Also, it reminds me of Mad Max: Fury Road. (No, seriously.)

There’s no use denying it: Pixar’s Inside Out is pure magic. Pure heartbreaking magic. On the surface, the movie’s premise — a look inside a young girl’s head at her emotions, dreams, and whatnot — is intriguing enough (if not entirely original), but you really have no idea. No idea whatsoever. As my wife and I left the theatre, we kept going over the movie and we couldn’t think of a single weak spot, sour note, or hiccup. Indeed, I still get alternately choked up and swept away when I think about the wonder that Pixar has accomplished here.

Director Pete Docter and the wizards at Pixar spent years crafting Inside Out, and it shows: it’s clever but never cloying, heartfelt but never saccharine, imaginative but never pretentious, and it easily ranks up there with The Incredibles and the Toy Story movies in the Pixar pantheon for me. So what are others saying about the movie? Seeing as how Inside Out currently has a 98% rating on Rotten Tomatoes, it’s pretty safe to say that I’m not the only one delighted by it.

Steven D. Greydanus calls it “a triumphant return to Pixar greatness” (emphasis mine):

What was the last movie I watched in such a sustained state of breathless, astonished discovery? I can’t think. Inside Out takes a simple if daring premise — a story about the world inside a child’s mind, with personifications of her emotions as characters — and proceeds to probe, test and explore the implications and limits of this premise with relentless curiosity, invention and insight.


A Pixar film is always a visual feast, but this might be the richest ever, with two contrasting worlds with wholly different looks. The outer world is photorealistic and desaturated; the inner world candy-colored and cartoony. All of Docter’s films (he also wrote and directed Monsters, Inc. as well as Up) have some kind of whimsical, exotic world set alongside the ordinary world, but never before have both worlds, and the relationship between them, been developed to such an extent.


Pixar has long been guided by Walt Disney’s philosophy that for every laugh there should be a tear. Inside Out is Pixar’s definitive statement on this sensibility, for it is literally about the relationship of Joy and Sadness. Watching it made me think differently about my relationships with my own kids; I have even found myself speaking to them differently. Perhaps the highest praise I can pay the film is that I wish I had seen it as a younger parent.

I know something of what Greydanus says there in that final paragraph; the movie has certainly been in the back of my mind as I’ve talked with my children since seeing it. It may very well be that the movie’s greatest legacy is that it shows a better way towards empathy and compassion — something Jeffrey Overstreet considers in his review:

I wouldn’t be surprised if Inside Out becomes the most socially influential work of this studio’s library of exemplary motion pictures. It’s a story that will prove to contribute meaningfully to conversations between parents and children, spouses, friends, and even communities for many years to come. For all of the technical skill on display, what makes this movie live is its marriage of head and heart, science and spirit, imagination and love. It’s the kind of movie that will promote the healing of psychological and relational wounds, prevent injuries, increase empathy, and strengthen bonds of relationship. Any meaningful film-recognition event at the end of 2015 — Are there any meaningful film-recognition events? — would give this serious top-honors consideration.

One thing I found particularly fun about Inside Out is that, for all of its elaborate world-building, it stills leaves much to the imagination. Although most of the movie takes place inside the head of a young girl named Riley, alongside her feelings’ exploits, we occasionally get glimpses inside the minds of those around her, primarily her parents. If the leader of Riley’s emotional states is Joy, then her dad’s is Anger and her mother’s Sadness. So what does this say about her parents and their issues? Does the dominance shift among one’s emotions? Will Joy be supplanted or overthrown inside Riley’s head by Sadness or some other emotion as she ages? Are her parents’ emotional states a subtle poke at how adulthood changes us?

At stressful times, Riley’s mom’s emotions will slip away to that of a fantasy involving an old boyfriend, while her dad’s slip away into replays of hockey games. What does this say about their marriage, which is presented as generally happy but not without some stress. (In this regard, Inside Out bears some similarities to The Incredibles, which features a refreshingly nuanced depiction of marriage and family life.)

And, as Peter Chattaway pointed out on Facebook (if I remember correctly), Riley’s emotions are both male and female in their personifications, whereas as her parents’ emotions are all one gender or the other. This may very well have been an issue of voice casting; after all, if you want to personify Anger, you can’t do any better than Lewis Black, while Amy Poehler is perfect as Joy. But it also raises some interesting ideas about how gender concepts and roles change as we age. It’s clear that hockey-loving Riley is something of a tomboy, but as she grows older and starts to, say, think about boys — something that sets up one of the movie’s funniest scenes, by the way — will her emotional states become more feminine?

To be sure, Inside Out doesn’t belabor or get bogged down by any of these points; doing so would almost certainly ruin both the fun and emotional impact of the movie, and perhaps even prevent us from encountering such delightful characters as Bing Bong, Riley’s imaginary childhood friend. (Oh sweet, sweet Bing Bong. Never forget.) But it does lend itself well to some “what if” questions and scenarios. As Tasha Robinson writes in her review, “Inside Out has a rich, unpackable story. But like all Pixar’s best films, it’s fleet and accessible, trusting the audience to keep up with an adventure that unfolds at a breakneck pace.”

Although it couldn’t be more different than Inside Out, this was one thing I really enjoyed about Mad Max: Fury Road, as well — that the movie contained enough ambiguity and unexplained stuff that it engaged my imagination and encouraged me to wonder about the movie’s world and how it functions. When a movie works with your imagination, rather than just explaining everything away, that’s an experience I always relish, though it’s one that feels all too rare in this age of sequels, reboots, and retreads in which we live.

Enjoy reading Opus? Want to support my writing? Become a subscriber for just $5/month or $50/year.
Subscribe Today
Return to the Opus homepage