There are Pixar films for kids, and there are Pixar films for grown-ups. Inside Out is definitely one for adults, and that grants it a kind of longevity. See, movies like Monsters, Inc., Cars, and even Toy Story have to depend on cutesy characters and sequels to extend their shelf life because, fun as they are, once you've seen them there isn't much there to revisit. Their concerns are those of children: finding what you're good at, fitting in among new friends, coping with a loss of popularity, etc. Movies like The Incredibles, Wall-E, and Up may still have cute characters but they have a more mature focus: adjusting to middle-age and familial responsibility, overcoming our consumerist tendencies, remembering you're only as young as you feel, and so forth. Inside Out definitely falls into the latter camp.
Inside Out's premise is not original. There was a forgettable Fox sitcom in the mid-90s, Herman's Head, that operated under the same concept. The themes were even once the basis of a Disney Parks attraction. But as confirmed in an interview on NPR's Fresh Air, director Pete Docter (Monsters, Inc., Up) spiffs it up by making it personal, basing it on his own experience of watching his daughter learn to cope with more complex emotions as she entered into puberty. In that lies the bittersweet tinge to the film. Riley (Kaitlyn Dias) is happy go-lucky tween whose life is turned upside down by her dad's decision to move the family to San Francisco for a start-up venture. We see the effects it has on Riley's inner life played out by five characters in her "head"-quarters. There's Joy (Amy Poehler), Sadness (Phyllis Smith), Fear (Bill Hader), Anger (Lewis Black) and Disgust (Mindy Kaling), all vying for control over Riley's actions from moment to moment but rarely overcoming the commanding presence of Joy.
Inside Out does have an issue staying completely engaging whenever we get into the interaction of these emotions. In its effort to pursue psychological accuracy in the way Joy so forcefully tries to block Sadness from the controls, the obviousness of Inside Out's metaphor sometimes feels didactic and simplistic. Other times it gives way to clever running jokes such as one explaining why certain memories—such as that advertising jingle that's become an earworm—is so darn hard to forget. Ultimately, the grounding of the more fanciful elements in the compelling story of Riley and her family is what makes Inside Out resonate. A third-act reversal in which Riley tries to take control of her destiny is captured with an appropriate level of darkness and depicted with a handheld-like jitteriness that makes for a nice contrast with the candy colored fantasy going on inside her head.
Joy and Sadness are the exceptions to a cast of toons whose personalities only just skirt being stereotypical. This is reinforced by the somewhat less than imaginative rainbow-colored aesthetic of Riley's inner landscape. But where some might say Inside Out's characters look too generic; I'd counter that they are designed to feel universal, a touch tabula rasa to allow one to project their own life experiences onto them. In any case, Inside Out may not end up selling a bunch of toys, but it is a movie parents can appreciate,and children will revisit with greater understanding as they grow older.
Inside Out is preceded by James Ford Murphy's animated short Lava (2014). This lush trifle leans heavily on its music, a heartfelt song delivered with great passion by Kuana Torres Kahele playing Uku, an island volcano plaintively calling for a mate to drive away his loneliness. Over thousands of years, Uku's refrain evolves from enthusiastic to utterly heartbreaking as he gradually loses his own explosive potency believing his tune goes unheard. Maybe it's because I'm headed for my own tropical vacation in just under a week, but I found Lava's imagery to be quite evocative of the peace and tranquility of beach life. Lava's subtle emotional textures perfectly prime the audience for the movie that follows.