I can’t make heads or tails of Inside Out. Don’t get me wrong, I loved the film to pieces, it’s the best Pixar film this decade and one of the most emotionally wrenching experiences I’ve ever had in a movie theater. It’s a gift of a movie and I feel privileged to get to enjoy it. What I don’t understand is how this is a kids movie.
I frequently say that a good children’s movie should have plenty for parents to enjoy and frequently take weaker studios to task for aiming too low with franchises like Madagascar and Ice Age but perhaps we’ve gone too far in the other direction. Inside Out is a stunningly mature film and I don’t know what a younger audience could possibly be getting out of this except for the thrill of seeing their parents openly weep for 90 minutes.
This is, of course, a bit of an exaggeration— there are plenty of accessible parts of Inside Out. The characters are bright and broad and the voice talent is excellent. I expected fantastic things from Amy Pohler, Mindy Kaling, and Lewis Black but Phyllis Smith steals the show. I didn’t expect much from her because she never terribly impressed me on The Office but she’s hilarious as Sadness. The movie is consistently funny and the humor is nice and broad and seemed to be hitting with everyone in my theater. At the root the story is the very familiar fish out of water journey that is a hallmark of storytelling in general and particularly stories for children. There’s plenty for kids to like here.
What I’m having trouble reconciling is how amazingly sad Inside Out can be. The film deals heavily with the sense of loss that comes with growing up and the people and things we leave behind. Inside Out follows an eleven year-old girl, Riley, as she moves from Minnesota to San Francisco and the personified emotional turmoil this traumatic event creates. We see aspects of her personality physically destroyed, a thorough examination of what happens to forgotten memories, and a treatment of a beloved childhood imaginary friend that I’m not sure I’ll ever get over completely. Children probably won’t find these moments sad in the same way an adult would because the sadness comes from a place of nostalgia for childhood that comes with age, but absent that feeling I’m just not sure what these moments have to offer and worry that it’s a movie full of dead space.
I’m probably overthinking this. I saw this film in a packed house with many families and there were none of the telltale signs of restless kids bored out of their skulls. I’m not giving the target audience enough credit nor am I respecting the filmmakers with a tremendous track record of making beloved films. I’m a little uncomfortable with how devastating Pixar is willing to be with these movies but if you made me choose between getting output like this and WALL-E, and Up or the comparably sedate stuff like Monsters University and Cars 2 I would rather cry my way through the more ambitious films.