By Michael S. Goldberger
Special to the Observer
Directors Peter Docter and Ronaldo Del Carmen’s “Inside Out,” an animated delight about the human psyche, sublimely bridges the parent-child gap and manages to be fully entertaining on several wonderfully perceptive levels. It is that rare breed of cinema that, without kowtowing compromise, plays to all groups along the age spectrum. Tapping into heartwarming wisdom and proffering universal truths, it’s charmingly indiscernible as to whether it’s a kiddy flick for grownups or vice versa. It is sure to be Meghan and Max’s entrée to seriously good filmmaking.
This is high concept stuff with the requisite moral lessons there for the imbibing, but happily bereft of that indoctrinating, designer label mantra too often spewed by studios looking to make lifetime customers of our offspring. None of which is to say there isn’t room here for potential spinoffs. It’s just not intimated with a sledge hammer. While it’s rather Pollyanna to truly believe it, we are nonetheless given the impression that the filmmaker’s first and foremost goal is to teach us, in its eye-popping, candy-colored way, a few vital things about the human pageant.
It’s all taught first-hand via the trials and tribulations of eleven-year-old Riley, voiced by Kaitlyn Dias, who must adjust to entirely new circumstances when her family moves from Minnesota to San Francisco. The upheaval unleashes all sorts of feelings. However, instead of just taking it on good faith that a conflux of moods and emotions are crossing swords, we are introduced to them.
Enchantingly realized with anthropomorphic affability, the notion of Joy, essentiality our tour guide through Riley’s subconscious, is verbalized by Amy Poehler. Naturally, the perennial optimist is inevitably at odds with Sadness (Phyllis Smith) and forever attempting to maintain some semblance of balance among Fear (Bill Hader), Anger (Lewis Black), and Disgust (Mindy Kaling). Affectionately drawn to match their callings (i.e. – Sadness is nebbish blue), they are a funny bunch of friendly adversaries, all dedicated to what they think is best for their dear girl.
Hence, in whimsically detailing just how it is we come to our conclusions, choose a demeanor or decide what and what not to like, the screenwriters creatively up the ante and expand on the old mode of decision making. You know the timeworn device: the Devil perched on one shoulder, an Angel on the other, clamoring for the soul in question’s adherence. But in this sensitive primer on the conflicts and hoped for resolutions that shape our personalities, growing up is a prism of choices. It’s hard being a kid…even harder if your parents don’t realize it.
Now, my dog Taffy, a wirehaired mutt with a perfect black eye who jumped on the bed to console the sobbing me whenever I suffered a perceived disappointment, was fully aware of that fact. However, too many parents subscribe to the idealistic folly that childhood is a grace period, that stresses and rigors are postponed until you’re old enough to handle them: e.g.-“What do you know of trouble?” This is a convenient amnesia, for it seems easier to spoil and enable kids than to rehash the heartaches parents themselves may have suffered. I trust you concur, Dr. Spock.
“Inside Out” is enlightenment delivered with humor, poignant insight and just enough sadness to guarantee its honesty. It supplies that special understanding, like the first novel that spoke to you…the one that assured you that you were not alone in your feelings and alerted you to the wisdom available in literature and its first cousin, film. Riley’s five emotions, each of them sure that they alone are key to her well-being, supply a lively, witty and wonderfully inventive repartee, a delicious bantering that delivers soul-searching introspection with amusing mirth.
Rooting for the pre-teen to successfully navigate her life-changing challenge, they, too, are in for an awakening and a redefinition of their synergy within the group. While the allegories, metaphors and dimensional switches from one part of Riley’s ego to another are smartly abstract, the animated symbolism, doubtless taking a cue from icon/computer speak, proves amazingly accessible. I mean, if I can get it, surely youngsters eight and older will have no problem grokking its enchanting essence. If not, your five-year-old genius will gladly explain it.
Six and seven-year-olds, aside from being happy to be included in the outing with an older sibling, should enjoy the sheer excitement, conviviality and surrealism. Channeling Riley’s imaginary friend, Bing Bong (Richard Kind) — a pink, elephantine spirit reminiscent of the loveable Ed Wynn — to help solve the gal’s plight is just one of the film’s inspired connections to the inner reaches of childhood. Great ideas and cutting edge ingenuity complemented by a touching dedication to the qualms of youth make “Inside Out” a winner from top to bottom.
“Inside Out,” rated PG, is a Walt Disney Studios release directed by Peter Docter and Ronaldo Del Carmen and stars the voices of Amy Poehler, Phyllis Smith and Lewis Black. Running time: 94 minutes