“Do you ever look at someone and wonder what’s going on inside their head?” That’s a question we can all relate to, and Pixar’s latest animated offering, Inside Out, takes a wildly creative and ambitious approach to answering that query. In this world, our emotions are manifested as physical beings that live inside our minds, and their ability to work in concert is what makes each of us… well, us.
Most of the film centers around Riley, an 11-year-old girl recently uprooted from her comfortable life in Minnesota to a cramped townhome in San Francisco after her father (Kyle MacLachlan) lands a new job – but this is merely the physical setting. The real story is taking place inside Riley’s mind, where Joy (Amy Poehler) tries to ensure that the girl’s days are filled with happiness – which means trying to micro-manage the rest of the team: Fear (Bill Hader), Disgust (Mindy Kaling), Anger (Lewis Black) and Sadness (Phyllis Smith).
As Riley struggles to adjust to her new life, her emotions are in constant turmoil. They frequently argue over the control center and can never seem to agree on the appropriate responses to the events in Riley’s life. When Joy attempts to stop Sadness from tampering with a group of “core memories” that make up the different facets of Riley’s personality, both emotions are accidentally expelled from Headquarters and sent careening into the furthest reaches of Riley’s mind.
With Fear, Anger and Disgust left to govern Riley’s moods, Joy and Sadness set off on a journey to restore the core memories before time runs out, and it’s at this point where Inside Out goes from an endearing concept to a fascinating and complex examination of the human psyche. Younger viewers will enjoy the surreal environments and vivid colors – except the Subsconscious, which might frighten the youngest audience members – but adults will also find a surprisingly effective series of metaphors that can easily be applied to real-world scenarios.
Director Pete Docter, who tugged at our heartstrings with 2009’s Up, has dreamed up one of the most remarkably imaginative ideas in the studio’s history. Over the course of their odyssey, Joy and Sadness endure situations that will have viewers contemplating some pretty heavy themes, and while Inside Out never quite reaches the overwhelming emotional impact offered by Docter’s previous film, there will still be plenty of viewers dabbing at the corners of their eyes during the film’s third act.
Poehler is wonderfully cast as the optimistic and exuberant Joy, gleefully oblivious to how overbearing she can be when she’s trying to keep everything under control. Kaling, Hader and Black each have some great moments, particularly during an argument between Riley and her parents at the dinner table. But Phyllis Smith is an absolute wonder as Sadness, a charming combination of Charlie Brown and Eeyore that we immediately empathize with, and who is responsible for some of Inside Out’s most tearjerking moments.
Once again, the talented creative forces at Pixar have delivered a film that will provide plenty of entertainment for younger audiences, while simultaneously giving adult viewers a thought-provoking and contemplative experience. It’s still too early to determine whether Inside Out is Pixar’s best film to date – or even where it fits in the lexicon of the studio’s 15-year career – but it’s certainly the best film they’ve produced in a very long time.