Over 20 years and 15 features, the Pixar brain trust has devised enduring and ingenious means of exploring dystopia (WALL-E), aging (Up, the Toy Story trilogy), the artistic impulse (Ratatouille), and the nature of greatness in an age that doubts it (The Incredibles). Inside Out, Pixar’s well-oiled new feature, boldly ups the ante on the studio’s penchant for high-concept family entertainments: Most of the film takes place in the mind of an 11-year-old girl, and its central crisis revolves around the fungibility of memory. Director Pete Docter envisions the human mind as a sort of ongoing board meeting, where five primary emotions engage in the immediate tasks of impulse-governing and crisis-management in front of a vast backdrop of core values and archived memories, which constitute our consistent yet constantly evolving identities. Inside Out’s plot is little more than an excuse to tour this massive expanse of what turns out to be rigorously demarcated emotional terrain; as such, Docter’s film often feels both wonderfully complex and weirdly reductive at the same time. That formula, though, seems as sound an embodiment of the human brain as any other.
Inside Out begins alongside the life of Riley (voiced, as a tween, by Kaitlyn Dias). As she begins to make sounds and express feelings, Riley’s brain spawns new emotions, and first comes Joy (Amy Poehler), who makes Riley giggle as the newborn looks, gauzy-eyed, at her parents (Diane Lane and Kyle McLachlan). Joy, a densely packed mass of radiant particles, is subsequently joined in Riley’s control room by Fear (Bill Hader), Anger (Lewis Black), Disgust (Mindy Kaling), and Sadness (Phyllis Smith), who genially and alternately take the reins of a panel that transforms Riley’s reactions into gestures and, later, sentences. These reactions transform, one by one, into memories, which take the form of tiny, translucent orbs. They roll, like bowling balls, onto neat shelves stocked with moments, all color-coded to match the presiding emotion of each memory. At age 11, Joy is the dominant force in Riley’s mind, but her relentless cheer is imperiled when Riley’s parents uproot her from Minnesota to San Francisco, as her father pursues a startup venture and the family moves into a narrow, shabby fixer-upper.
Despite these gestures to Silicon Valley and gentrification, Inside Out’s values and concerns are reassuringly timeless. Riley isn’t beholden to neuroscience or contemporary debates about creative genes and parenting strategies; she’s an athletically inclined pre-teen trying to, with Joy’s encouragement, make the best of an abrupt transition. Her struggles begin when, back in the control room, Sadness begins to obtain some unique powers. With just a touch, formerly happy memories become tinged with pain, and Sadness herself becomes morbidly fascinated with exploring her potential. Joy, rendered by Poehler as a slightly gentler, but even more chipper, version of her control-freak Leslie Knope, cannot abide Sadness’s incursions. (Smith does an outstanding job of conveying the variegated hues and motives of melancholy.) After Sadness commandeers Riley’s first day at her new school, in the form of a devastatingly uncomfortable introductory speech to her classmates, the two battle over Riley’s sacred core memories. In the process, Joy, Sadness, and all of Riley’s most pivotal remembrances are sucked out of the control room and into the expanse of Riley’s brain.
From here, Inside Out maneuvers with impressive but heavily plotted fluidity between three planes of action: Fear, Anger, and Disgust are left to play the primary motivators for Riley’s behavior; Riley herself becomes despondent, attempting to commit the ultimate genteel childhood crime of running away from home; meanwhile, Joy and Sadness tour Riley’s brain as they try to make it back to headquarters. By dint of its conceit, Docter’s film unfurls with a busy determinism that can be tiring, recalling the overwrought travelogue of Up’s middle act: Anger never gets mad without first announcing that he’s going to get mad, and Joy and Sadness’s sojourn through the territories of Riley’s mind follows a regressive arc. It begins in a quaint, quintessentially Pixarian factory setting (day-wage workers erase phone numbers to make room for new information) and ends in a despairing junkyard of forgotten tidbits, where one bland supporting character (Richard Kind’s Bing-Bong, Riley’s former imaginary friend) martyrs himself in order to vault Joy and Sadness back to their rightful home in the child’s mind.
Every step of this journey can feel, all at once, both on the nose and dazzlingly inventive. The best analogue for Riley’s mind is a Hollywood studio backlot, where rickety old sets crumble as more modern, complex new products are developed. This gives Docter excuses to pay homage to both abstract films (in the realm of abstract learning) and B-movie aesthetics (in a hilarious dream production factory), and it gives Inside Out an aura of relentless ingenuity even as the film comes to seem like it was plucked from a Pixar Narrative Generator algorithm. (Michael Giacchino, the studio’s resident composer, contributes an uncharacteristically forgettable score, but the production design, where Day-Glo coloring mingles with the alluring curves of an Apple-designed contraption, is remarkable, and should make for a rewarding 3D viewing experience.) With Monsters, Inc. and Up, Docter has proven himself Pixar’s resident nostalgist and most capable tearjerker, but Inside Out may be his most complete and poignant work. In order to restore Riley to her natural charm and perseverance, Joy and Sadness must work together, and thereby allow Sadness to take a greater role in Riley’s future. Once Inside Out reestablishes its nuclear family, the film also shakes off its emotional shackles, unearthing some exquisite harmony in simply feeling mixed up and confused.