When I first heard about the concept for PIXAR's latest film, "Inside Out," I thought I was on familiar ground. I had seen plenty of media like "Osmosis Jones," "Herman's Head," and "Reason and Emotion" that showed human beings being populated and influenced by tiny, anthropomorphized aspects of themselves. I thought I knew exactly what I was in for. I severely underestimated Pete Docter, though, who directed and co-wrote "Inside Out" with Meg LeFauve and Josh Cooley. The world that the PIXAR folks have created in the mind of an eleven-year-old girl is one of their best, and "Inside Out" is their most exciting and original films in years.
Riley Anderson (Kaitlyn Dias) is looked after by five emotions, Joy (Amy Pohler), Fear (Bill Hader), Disgust (Mindy Kahling), Anger (Lewis Black), and Sadness (Phyllis Smith). Joy is the one in charge, who spends the most time at the controls of Riley's mind, and is the creator of Riley's most important "core memories," which power different parts of her personality, represented as different islands like "Family," "Friendship," and "Hockey." But when Riley and her parents (Diane Lane, Kyle MacLachlan) leave their home in Minnesota to move to San Francisco, everything is thrown into turmoil. Joy, Sadness, and the core memories end up ejected from the control booth and lost in other parts of Riley's mind. They need to make it back to the control panel or Riley's emotional well-being will be in serious jeopardy.
I always love the worldbuilding in PIXAR films, but what they've built in the mind of Riley Anderson is a cut above the rest. Not only is it beautiful to look at and full of clever ideas - we visit Imagination Land where dreams are made, the prison of the subconscious, and a literal train of though - but how the world functions is so well-considered and thoughtfully constructed. The internal and external worlds are connected beautifully through the five emotions, whose interactions and conflicts manifest themselves in Riley's state of mind. With Joy out of the control booth, Disgust, Fear, and Anger are left to try and fill in for her, resulting in moody preteen passive-aggressiveness and sarcasm. Joy's antagonism toward the mopey Sadness is a big part of the story, reflecting's Riley's efforts to repress her unhappiness, which has disastrous consequences.
What really makes "Inside Out" something special, though, is how absolutely committed it is to taking Riley's emotional life seriously in a way that most films either avoid or tend to handle very superficially. It's fitting that the PIXAR movie starring emotions should be it's most poignant, as it's slowly revealed that Riley is growing up and her personality is changing. It caught me off guard how much of the story is about dealing with loss and learning to let go, not just for Riley but for Joy. And PIXAR's not afraid of putting the audience through the emotional wringer right along with the characters. Joy discovering what becomes of Riley's discarded, faded memories is bound to hit every parent where it hurts. Sadness finally coming into her own is an incredibly cathartic, satisfying sequence - hopeful and yet very, very sad.
Rest assured that nothing ever gets too intense for the smallest children, and there are plenty of funny bits to balance out the pathos. The collection of comedians assembled to portray the emotions are an excellent bunch. Poehler's manic energy and motherly protectiveness bring so much to Joy. Smith's a perfect bundle of moroseness. And Lewis Black is Anger, because of course Lewis Black is Anger. I often find PIXAR movies a little cluttered with minor characters, but the balance here was about right. There are a few quick cameos by some famous names voicing the little workers running various parts of Riley's mind, but they don't call attention to themselves. It's not that kind of movie.
I'm thrilled with "Inside Out" from top to bottom, and it's kind of a relief to finally have another PIXAR film I can say I adore wholeheartedly. I'm fine with the studio making sequels and being mindful of its bottom line, as long as once in a while, when we need them to, they still make movies like this one.