So many of the most emotionally powerful moments in the Pixar movie canon have to do with the passage of time through a life, and the passage of a life through time. Sometimes that life is represented by a doll, as in the heartbreaking “When She Loved Me” flashback montage in Toy Story 2 or the even more composure-destroying ending of Toy Story 3. Sometimes it’s a robot, as in the sublime first third of Wall-E, a near-silent meditation on loneliness and loss. And sometimes the life is one that’s more recognizably like our own, as in the entire novel’s worth of insights about love, marriage, and mortality packed into the less-than-five-minute-long montage near the beginning of Up. The happy endings of these movies—like the happily ever afters of traditional fairy tales—aren’t just feel-good story resolutions. They’re affirmations of the value of hope, resilience, and human (or doll or robot) connection, even in the face of certain disaster.
In Pixar’s astonishing new movie, Inside Out, directed by Up’s Pete Docter and co-written by Docter, Meg LeFauve, and Josh Cooley, that disaster is located inside the head of an 11-year-old girl, Riley (voiced by Kaitlyn Dias), whose family has just moved from Minnesota to San Francisco, pitching her into the first major emotional crisis of her life. In a storytelling convention that’s at least as old as the 1966 sci-fi film Fantastic Voyage—another example that springs to mind is Madeleine L’Engle’s great novel A Wind in the Door—Inside Out cuts between two parallel storylines, one taking place around Riley, the other inside her. At the controls in this mixed-up kid’s brain is a mixed-up bunch of personified emotions: Joy (Amy Poehler); Sadness (Phyllis Smith); Anger (Lewis Black); Fear (Bill Hader); and Disgust (Mindy Kaling).
Up until now, these temperamentally disparate colleagues have worked together pretty well as a team, manning the controls at headquarters to assure Riley’s day-to-day well-being. But given that the little girl in question is a happy, well-loved child, it’s Joy who’s pretty much ruled the roost. As Riley’s misery about her new circumstances grows—she misses her friends, her parents are anxious about money and work, she’s ignored by the cool girls at school—the conditions at headquarters worsen, with Joy and Sadness eventually forced to make a journey deep into Riley’s … brain? Soul? Heart? Memory? What exactly is the interior landscape Inside Out maps out with such visual inventiveness and wealth of geographical detail?—in order to restore her emotional equilibrium and capacity for happiness.
If you’re a filmgoer who likes to play around with ideas—and I think we do young children a disservice by assuming they don’t, though I suspect there must be a developmental stage before which Inside Out’s conceit would be unintelligible—discovering the rules by which Riley’s headspace operates is the single best thing about Inside Out. So I’ll just say that there are these things called “core memories”—glowing orbs containing key images from the past, sort of like portable crystal balls—that must be protected at all costs. As Joy and Sadness make their way through the theme park-like land of Riley’s imagination or across the hazardous plains of abstract thought (where Sadness warns, “If we don’t hurry, pretty soon we’ll be nothing but shape and color!”), Joy carries these crucial memories in a backpack given to her by Riley’s imaginary friend Bing Bong (Richard Kind), who joins them in the course of their travels.
Bing Bong, a vaguely elephant-shaped pink creature with a body made of cotton candy and a nose he can toot like a trumpet, has had little to do since Riley stopped playing with him years ago, and he’s happy to lend his brain-wandering expertise to the lost emotions on their search for a way home. But—in Riley’s family life, as well as inside her head—no one really has a clue what the hell’s going on, and pretty soon the whole emotion-management team finds itself in disarray as she slips into full-on preadolescent crisis.
Fittingly, the music, by faithful Pixar troubadour Michael Giacchino, is clean, bright and playful, but tinged with a recurring note of melancholy, a perfect match for the rainbow-colored but sometimes menacing brain-world designed by the studio’s magical animation team. Riley’s outer world feels like a realistic version of San Francisco, and she and her parents (Kyle MacLachlan and Diane Lane) are recognizable and relatable human beings—but I can’t quite say that Inside Out’s “real” people ever seem as real as its cast of anthropomorphized feelings, whose shape, color, and movement express their inner being with a clarity computer-animated human flesh cannot match. Still, the voice actors in both universes give such across-the-board strong performances that neither the denizens of Riley’s head nor those of her San Francisco home ever come off as generic stand-ins for a family role or an idea. As the droopy and Eeyore-like but ultimately indispensable character of Sadness, The Office’s Phyllis Smith pretty much steals the show—no small act of larceny when you’re acting opposite the likes of Poehler and Kind.
Only in the medium of animation could a conceit as elaborate as Inside Out’s be dramatized, and only animation this well-designed and executed could bring such a story so vibrantly to life. Inside Out is an allegory in the old-fashioned sense of the term, a digitally animated Pilgrim’s Progress or Divine Comedy that ushers its heroines (and us) through an uncharted land in which the ideas, beliefs and memories that shape our daily lives take on physical form. Riley is never aware of the crisis taking place inside her head, except as it manifests in her constantly changing moods. Yet those moods are conveyed, in both worlds, with such visual imagination and emotional immediacy that it’s evident to anyone in the audience—certainly to the 9-year-old who sat entranced at my side—how the macro- and micro-narrative universes interrelate and affect one another. Nor are the goings-on at Riley HQ simply a reflection of whatever’s happening in her outer reality. Often, story developments in the brain-world add nuance and complexity to some aspect or other of getting older—the central story of every human life. As Inside Out is aware to a degree that’s rare in kids’ movies, growing up is both a grand triumph and an irreversible tragedy.