A return to form for Pixar, Inside Out is a magically inventive treat that will captivate young and old. Easily the smartest animated feature in years, it’s also one of the most moving. This should be a huge success for the studio.
After watching his own adolescent daughter’s mood swings, director Pete Docter (Up, Monsters, Inc.) came up with a neat explanation: five basic emotions were controlling her thoughts, sometimes smoothly, sometimes at war with one another.
Docter’s example in the movie is Riley (voiced by Kaitlyn Dias), a smart, fun-loving, tomboyish girl from Minnesota. Her emotions—Anger (Lewis Black), Disgust (Mindy Kaling), Fear (Bill Hader), Sadness (Phyllis Smith) and Joy (Amy Poehler)—operate from a high-tech console somewhere behind her eyes. Riley’s personality—her concept of herself—shifts when her parents move to San Francisco.
Joy, the dominant emotion, keeps trying to solve Riley’s problems, like an embarrassing confession on her first day in a new school or her meltdown during hockey tryouts. Joy also has to find a way to handle Sadness, who has a bad habit of turning Riley’s happy memories into depressing ones.
An accident flings Joy and Sadness out of headquarters to the deep recesses of Riley’s mind, where they must protect her core memories and find a way back to the central console. Now controlled by Fear, Disgust and Anger, Riley withdraws more and more from her parents and school, prey to rash decisions.
Inside Out could have been too cutesy on the one hand, or too cut-and-dried and mechanical. Instead, it is bursting with jokes, songs and slapstick chases, played out with vibrant colors splashed over freewheeling, kaleidoscopic designs. Docter’s version of how the mind works is simple and intuitive enough for kids to grasp. But it’s also a remarkably sophisticated way to explain dreams, the subconscious, abstract thought, memory loss and other brain functions.
Inside Out has its share of sorrow and loss. Riley’s struggle between joy and sadness has heartbreaking results. She loses friends, family and belief in herself, in ways parents and kids will both recognize. But Inside Out is more than an emotional battle. It is about saving Riley from herself, rescuing her from very real and scary consequences.
Docter’s answers will make easy sense to kids, but they will cut their parents to the bone. Wrapping up hard truths like these in a bright, shiny package is what Pixar does best.
While the character designs for Riley’s emotions are delightful, the voice cast really brings them to life. As Joy, Amy Poehler is warm, effervescent and indomitable. She’s matched by Phyllis Smith as a passive-aggressive version of Sadness. And Richard Kind deserves special mention as Bing Bong, a character who figures into the movie’s funniest scenes.