There are many things to marvel at in Pixar’s Inside Out — the intricate, novel narrative concept, the sad fate of one Bing Bong, the ruthlessness with which it milks every tear from your body until you’re more lacrimal fluid than human, etc. But among all these elements, one stands out: Amy Poehler’s vocal performance as Joy, the film’s chief protagonist. Terrific voice-acting is nothing new in Disney and/or Pixar movies, of course: Think back to Robin Williams in Aladdin, or Patrick Warburton in The Emperor’s New Groove, or Ellen DeGeneres in Finding Nemo, or Jean Sincere in The Incredibles. But rarely do you find an actor who is asked to do this much in a voice role, and who pulls it off this beautifully. The more I watch Inside Out, the more I realize just how much of the film rests on Poehler’s shoulders. And she’s amazing in it.
Joy isn’t just the chief protagonist of Inside Out. Much as in a teen or high-school movie, she’s also the narrator. In the film’s opening and closing, she explains in voice-over the inner workings of the world we’re watching — this imaginary land inside the mind of an 11-year-old girl named Riley. But Joy effectively serves as a kind of narrator throughout the rest of the film as well, speaking expository dialogue, often to herself, that helps us understand what’s going on. That it never really feels like exposition is a testament to both the script and to Poehler’s performance.
The landscape of the mind as portrayed in Inside Out is exceedingly complex — so much so that its complexity becomes one of the film’s running gags — and the characters themselves often discover how things work as they move through this world. So Joy has to possess both the warm certainty of an educational narrator — we have to trust her, after all — with some of the bluster of a know-it-all. She often thinks she knows how something works, only to discover that she doesn’t. (Ironically, the morose Sadness, whom Joy made read a ton of books about the intricacies of the mind as a way to keep her from meddling in Riley’s affairs, has a better working knowledge of things.)
And this relentlessly peppy chatterbox has to do all this without irritating the hell out of us. Joy’s constant optimism could get very, very old, very, very quickly. Thankfully, it manifests itself in a variety of ways. Sometimes, she’s genuinely elated and excited. Sometimes, she’s just showing outside cheer to mask inner uncertainty. Sometimes, her relentless positivity is aggressive, almost scheming — as when she tries to cast Sadness aside to keep her from affecting Riley’s memories. Joy is a great thing, the film is telling us, but sometimes it can keep us from growing up, from moving on, from understanding the world. It’s a fairly simple theme, but it’s expressed quite subtly.
Poehler manages to turn Joy’s constant positivity into a charming vulnerability. Remember, even though Joy acts mostly like a grown-up throughout Inside Out, she’s still an emotion floating around inside an 11-year-old girl’s mind. So she has to convey the glee of a child with the complexity of someone older. Listen to Joy’s giddy, childlike anticipation as Riley and her parents approach their new house in San Francisco: “We’re getting close, I can feel it. Hereitis, heresournewHOUSE!” And then listen to her snap back into the slightly phony, can-do language of self-help when the house turns out to be a bust: “I read that an empty house is an opportunity!” The effortless ease with which Poehler jumps back and forth between these different attitudes is actually deceptively hard to pull off, even in an animated film.
But because this is Pixar, that cheer also has to give way to melancholy at one point. When it seems like all is lost — when she and Bing Bong are stranded in the dark abyss of the memory dump, with seemingly no way out — Joy actually has to cry, and for a surprisingly long time, as she watches her memories with Riley. There’s a narrative reason for this, obviously: Joy, being joy, doesn’t ordinarily cry, and she’s about to discover that sadness can plays an important role in one’s life. So Joy cries — nonstop, heaving, agonizing sobs. It’s an impressively dark moment, even for a Pixar movie. (It also sets up the film’s next impressively dark moment, in which Bing Bong sacrifices himself so Joy can use his rocket-wagon to escape the memory dump.)
Joy’s journey and Poehler’s acting allow us to realize something else. There’s a second narrative within the story of Inside Out. We’re watching Riley grow up, to be sure — this is a coming-of-age tale par excellence — but we’re also watching Joy grow up. That isn’t necessarily surprising — Joy is a part of Riley, after all — but the self-awareness is. Riley may be quiet and shy, but Joy is a character who is constantly talking, and explaining, and ordering, and feeling. She’s a chatterbox of exposition and emotion, and thus, seemingly, highly self-aware. And yet, she sort of isn’t. Amid all that know-it-all dialogue is somebody who herself is kind of stunted, and who has to do a fair bit of maturing. Joy has to understand herself in order to understand Riley.
Inside Out is, in many senses, a movie about losing control. Or, rather, relinquishing control. Joy basically runs Riley’s mind; all the other emotions are subservient to her. As the film proceeds, she has to give up that control, which requires her to recognize how little of it she has. But she also has to continue being a hero on a quest, as she and Sadness explore the undiscovered corners of Riley’s personality. In traditional fairy-tale terms, Joy would be the innocent princess and the powerful queen — both Elsa and Anna, if you will. This is a bold, beautiful idea for an animated movie. And it’s a wild, high-wire act of a voice performance. Give Amy Poehler the credit she’s due: She IS Inside Out.