Riley Anderson (voiced by Kaitlyn Dias), the 11-year-old girl at the center of Pixar’s 15th animated marvel, sits between her mom and dad (Diane Lane and Kyle MacLachlan) at a dinner table, silently picking at Chinese takeout. The Andersons have just uprooted, moving from rural Minnesota to San Francisco, where their cramped new house in the city is creaky, old and gray, a far cry from the home they left behind. But then, Inside Out isn’t the typical sunny kids fare. As if to announce this, Riley finds a dead mouse on the floor not far from where they’re sitting.
The introductory moments of this third feature film from writer/director Pete Docter—who helmed Monsters, Inc. before winning an Oscar for Up—efficiently present the first decade of Riley’s idyllic childhood from a uniquely creative perspective: inside her head. Or more specifically, a control room known as Headquarters.
Staffed by a crew representing five of her emotions, Riley’s mind offers a colorful counterpoint to her drab new surroundings. Picture the ’60s-era bridge of Star Trek’s USS Enterprise, complete with a retro-futuristic control panel of analog knobs, switches and lights. However, rather than a group of human (and Vulcan) explorers, the characters peering at the view-screen displaying the universe (as seen through Riley’s eyes) are made of pure energy—glowing bubbles of color-coded electrons, clustered together to form the sparkling forms of the film’s heroes.
Joy (a chipper Amy Poehler, headlining a tremendous cast), the leader of the group and our journey’s narrator, is a yellow-hued pixie—wingless, but not too far removed from Tinker Bell. Joy has been the dominant emotion guiding Riley, but now that the young tomboy faces depressing circumstances—living somewhere unfamiliar, starting at a new school with no friends and, worst of all, leaving her beloved hockey team behind—Sadness (Phyllis Smith), teardrop-shaped and appropriately blue, is becoming a more prominent presence. Rounding out the emotions are Anger (Lewis Black), who resembles a red fire brick, complete with flaming hair; Fear (Bill Hader), purple and coiled like a raw nerve; and the green Disgust (Mindy Kaling), who resembles a piece of broccoli.
Sure, the setup may sound vaguely uninspired to viewers old enough to remember the early ’90s Fox sitcom Herman’s Head or a segment in Woody Allen’s non-family-friendly film from 1972, Everything You Always Wanted to Know About Sex * But Were Afraid to Ask. However, the initial idea was inspired by Disney’s 1943 short Reason and Emotion, and Docter’s script (co-written with Meg LeFauve and Josh Cooley) goes deeper than any of these dared. If you take children younger than Riley to see this PG-rated picture, be aware that during the trippy exploration of a young girl’s fracturing psyche, they may be exposed to raw emotional crises they’ve not yet considered.
Occasionally, as in the sequence at the dinner table, Docter and co-director Ronaldo Del Carmen shift the film’s point of view outside of Riley’s head and into the “real” world, observing how she is behaving externally and providing the viewer with a dose of relatable mundanity before snapping back into her head—or occasionally even into the minds of her parents.
As the bespectacled Mom notices her daughter’s growing detachment during dinner, we zoom into her mind’s maternal Headquarters, where her emotions (all women, each wearing glasses) go on alert. Meanwhile, in Dad’s head, we see that his emotions (all male, each sporting his mustache) are distracted by a hockey game. Suddenly, as his emotions notice the concerned look on his wife’s face, they incorrectly assess the situation, and tensions flare between father and daughter. We cut to a sighing Mom, whose emotions hilariously reminisce about the dashing helicopter pilot she could have married. Yes, this is one of the better Pixar efforts that offers as much (if not more) for adults as it does for kids.
While Riley was throwing her dinnertime tantrum, internally, the ascendant Sadness was wreaking havoc with some of Riley’s joyful Core Memories. Just as Joy is struggling to understand why Sadness is taking a larger role in Riley’s emotional development, the two are accidentally ejected from Headquarters and sucked through a tube that deposits them deep in Longterm Memory, leaving Anger, Fear and Disgust to man the controls of Riley’s spiraling psyche.
Anchoring the emotions is another beautiful score by Michael Giacchino (an Oscar winner for his music in Up), who keeps Joy and Sadness moving as they learn to cooperate during their desperate journey back to Headquarters. The duo navigate Riley’s crumbling Islands of Personality, taking a shortcut through Imagination Land before boarding the Train of Thought, all at the risk of being transformed into Abstract Junk.
And just when you think the film is over, be sure to remain seated during the end credits, where a montage functions as the perfect pick-me-up after the tearfully heady adventure. Docter, one of Pixar’s founding members (who are appropriately known within as the company’s “Brain Trust”), makes his diagnosis clear: Sometimes, it takes a touch of sadness to experience and appreciate real joy.
Inside Out ***1/2
Starring Amy Poehler, Phyllis Smith, Bill Hader, Mindy Kaling, Lewis Black, Kaitlyn Dias, Diane Lane, Kyle MacLachlan, Richard Kind and John Ratzenberger. Written by Pete Docter, Meg LeFauve and Josh Cooley. Directed by Pete Docter. Co-directed by Ronaldo Del Carmen. At Assembly Row, Boston Common, Fenway and in the suburbs