Walt Disney Pictures presents a film directed by Pete Docter, Ronaldo del Carmen. Screenplay by Meg LeFauve, Josh Cooley, Pete Docter; story by Pete Docter, Ronaldo del Carmen. Produced by Jonas Rivera. Music by Michael Giacchino. Edited by Kevin Nolting. Production designed by Ralph Eggleston. Art direction by Bert Berry. Starring Amy Poehler, Phyllis Smith, Richard Kind, Bill Hader, Lewis Black, Mindy Kaling, Kaitlyn Dias, Diane Lane, Kyle McLachlan.
Several movies have taken place inside the human mind, but none of them have done so with such exuberance, creativity and sophistication than Inside Out. Disney-Pixar’s latest film is not just a visual marvel and a great entertainment, but it has something to say about the role that emotions play in our lives—something quietly profound. This is the studio’s fifteenth feature, and—after a string of middling entries and a whole year hiatus—one of their very best, joining their upper echelon of hits like Finding Nemo and Up and becoming that rarest of things: a true instant classic.
The premise is simply stated, more or less. When a little girl named Riley comes into the life of two sweet parents, we meet the five anthropomorphized emotions who are “born” with her: the yellow, bouncy Joy (Amy Poehler, perfectly cast), fireplug-red Anger (Lewis Black, ditto), the purple, vaguely insectoid fear (Bill Hader, yes again), sickly green Disgust (Mindy Kaling, brilliant) and the teardrop-shaped blue Sadness (Phyllis Smith of The Office, of course). Together in the central hub office (or “Headquarters”) of Riley’s mind, the five emotions perpetually jockey for control of a console that informs Riley’s actions (varying based on which one is behind the controls), though the effervescent Joy keeps herself more or less dominant. Memories come in as ball-shaped objects, each colored in tune with a specific emotion (happy memories are hued in Joy’s yellow, for example). Important “core” memories generate pop-up islands in the spaces of Riley’s mind that shape aspects of her happy personality: honesty, family, hockey, etc. Everything, as Riley grows into an 11-year-old (voiced by Kaitlyn Dias), is great.
But things soon take a turn for the girl. Her family moves from Minnesota to San Francisco, where the environs are alien, her hockey teammates are gone, the family’s new home is unpromising, pizza places can’t get pizza right, and both parents are growing worried and distant, and her first day of school is an emotional disaster. Inside Riley’s head, Sadness starts infecting once-happy memory spheres with her blues, to Joy’s consternation. A scuffle leads to Joy and Sadness (along with several core memories) being jettisoned out of Headquarters, leaving Riley in the uncertain hands of Disgust, Anger and Fear, which causes troubling behavior in the real world. What’s more, this new instability causes Riley’s mind to flirt with serious and potentially damaging upheaval, as personality islands collapse and Joy and Sadness are in danger of getting lost forever in Riley’s heady labyrinth, or being chucked into a gaping abyss where memories go to die. The unspoken ramifications could be devastating.
And thus we have an adventure story with a traditional shape and charmingly abstract trappings. Joy and Sadness try to navigate the annals of long-term memory and bump into maintenance crews cleaning out junk, as well as Riley’s discarded imaginary friend, Bing Bong (Richard Kind). Together, the three pass through zones called Imagination Land and Abstract Thinking, with a stopover at a movie studio that is literally a dream factory for Riley. Along the way, there’s plenty of wonderful visuals and sly jokes for all ages. At one point, Joy knocks over a box each of “opinions” and “facts” and can’t sort them, and then she’s told “It happens all the time.”
But as is also Pixar tradition, the movie enters tearful territory as Joy desperately tries to get back to Riley and learns hard truths about the nature of the mind. What specifically happens to Joy and Sadness (and Bing Bong, for that matter), I won’t reveal, but it has everything to do with the poignant realities of growing up: personality changes, things are replaced, and a healthy growing mind needs balance. All of this is juxtaposed with Riley’s scenes, and she is a such a good kid that her inner turmoil gives us more stakes than a thousand blockbusters.
The voice work is inspired, the animation is delightful, the story is thrilling, and Inside Out ultimately arrives at lessons that can actually help us understand each other, and ourselves. That will resonate instantly while adults, while kids will find it increasingly meaningful as they grow up with it. Which they will.