In his speech to the 2011 graduating class of the University of Pennsylvania, two-time Oscar winner Denzel Washington discussed the importance of failure. He noted, “Thomas Edison conducted 1000 failed experiments. Did you know that? I didn’t know that because the 1001st was the light bulb?” I was reminded of that compelling speech during a recent screening of the new Pixar comedy Inside Out.
It wasn’t because the movie was a failed experiment— it’s, in fact, a rousing success— but because the film dealt maturely with the idea that failures, disappointments and sadness are often necessary obstacles that we all must face in order to find success and joy.
Like many of Pixar’s earlier films, Inside Out is awash in delightful colors and characters. Kaitlyn Dias voices the main human character— an eleven-year-old girl named Riley— but the main cast is composed of actors who voice her different emotional states. There’s Joy (Amy Poehler), the often-exuberant emotion that Riley grew up loving. There’s Sadness (Phyllis Smith), the voice of pain and disappointment in Riley’s life. And then there’s Fear (Bill Hader), Anger (Lewis Black) and Disgust (Mindy Kaling). All of Riley’s emotional states at that age are compacted into one of those five categories.
The casting here works wonders in establishing these characters with Black’s gruff voice reliably amusing and Smith’s abashed tone constantly reminding viewers what these characters represent.
The film relishes in the joy of Riley’s life until her parents (voiced by Diane Lane and Kyle MacLachlan) move Riley’s family from Minnesota to San Francisco. Riley’s world is changed completely at the same time that Joy and Sadness— the feelings within her— get lost outside of their main headquarters and are unable to help Riley cope with this difficult period in her life.
The world of Riley’s emotions is a candy-coated delight showing her past memories stored up in a huge arena, filled with some of her favorite moments of childhood. As we witness the physical journey of Joy and Sadness, we see the imaginations of the film’s scriptwriters come to life. The film was directed by Pete Docter and Ronaldo Del Carmen with script credit going to them, Meg LaFauve and Josh Cooley. With that much talent behind the scenes, there’s a lot of great ideas on display here that work really well together. From the literal train of thought that makes its way around Riley’s mind to Imagination Land (where Riley’s dream boyfriend stands around pledging his affection for her), this is a unique vision and one that will keep children entertained while amusing their more mature parents (who will especially love the glimpse inside the minds of Riley’s parents).
The journey these characters go on only hints at the profundity of the film’s concept. On the surface, the story finds a few great laughs and several tender moments of nostalgic beauty as recognition grows that some childhood memories— like imaginary friends— are inevitably going to fade away.
Deeper though, the film contends that every emotional state— including sadness— has a meaning and that we shouldn’t reduce the importance of even our most painful memories.
Failure and the sadness that comes with it play an important role in our lives. As Denzel Washington— an actor who struggled early on— knows, failure often helps a person grow become more successful and valuable. That’s something we lose when young people play sports where everyone’s a winner and the score doesn’t matter. Wins matter and so do losses. Joy matters but so does sadness and we need to understand the importance of both to grow. That’s a message worth supporting and one that gets a beautiful showcase in this new film.
No matter how you look at it though, Inside Out is a funny, original and charming winner and a movie that strives to do more than simply entertain.
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