There’s been a sense in the last couple of years that Pixar, the almost infallible and endlessly creative animation studio started by the late Steve Jobs and now owned by Disney, had gotten itself into a rut. Three of its last four feature films were sequels, while its sole original outing of the past five years, Brave, was a troubled production that met with a mixed response. Was it possible that the ingenious Pixar team had over-extended itself or, worse, become more obsessed with chasing money through surefire brand recognition to satisfy its corporate parent?
Whatever the case may be, Pixar’s new release, Inside Out, should silence any naysayers. The film is a flat-out masterpiece, a beautiful, highly original and powerfully moving motion picture rich with humor, emotion, engaging ideas and a colorful and wonderfully imaginative palette of visuals that metaphorically map out something that none of us really understand: the inner workings of the human mind, in this case that of an 11-year-olf girl named Riley (voiced by Kaitlyn Dias). Director Pete Docter (Up), along with co-director Ronnie del Carmen, has fashioned a story that deals poignantly with the loss of innocence, the way we manage and accept new feelings and, perhaps most movingly, memory and how we often desperately hold onto it.
That may sound heavy, but Docter, del Carmen and their collaborators, starting with the sterling voice cast, tuck this inside a fast-paced adventure story that should hold little ones enthralled even if they don’t fully grasp every embedded subtext. Riley’s story opens with a montage of her early years, from infant to toddler to child, and her happy, carefree life with her parents in their bucolic home and yard in Minnesota, surrounded by nature and the outdoors and all the fun that entails. But as Riley turns 11, the happy family are faced with a huge challenge: her dad’s (voiced by Kyle MacLachlan) new business venture requires the Andersons to move to San Francisco, trading their country home and life for the cramped, noisy, gritty environs of the big city.
Meanwhile, we are also introduced to Riley’s inner mental landscape, where the “control room” is run by five emotions: Joy (Amy Poehler), Anger (Lewis Black), Fear (Bill Hader), Disgust (Mindy Kaling) and Sadness (Phyllis Smith). Joy is the leader, driven to keep Riley happy, but the others have their specific jobs too – except for Sadness, who is an emotion without a portfolio, so to speak. Inside the control room, Riley’s always expanding collection of memories take the shape of glowing glass orbs, each the color of the emotion they bring up and most of them yellow for Joy. Her most important or “core” memories provide the power for five “islands” that make up the essential aspects of her personality -- Family Island, Friendship Island, Goofball Island, Hockey Island and Honesty Island -- while outside the control room, countless others are either shelved in Long Term Memory or consigned to the Abyss, where they slowly fade away.
The move to San Francisco triggers a range of new sensations inside Riley, which are embodied by Sadness being compelled to touch even happy memories and add a layer of melancholy to them. When Sadness accidentally drops a core memory, Joy tries to stop her – but their resultant struggle sends Joy, Sadness and the precious core memories out of the Control Room, leaving that to Anger, Fear and Disgust, while Joy and Sadness must find their way back across the landscape of Riley’s mind to restore her core memories before the islands of her personality all crumble away into the memory dump of the Abyss.
As Joy and Sadness travel through Riley’’s mind, passing through places like Imagination Land and Dream Production, they meet one of the film’s most memorable and moving characters: Bing-Bong (voiced by Richard Kind), Riley’s imaginary friend who she stopped “playing” with when she was four. Sad and lonely, the initially upbeat creature reveals that he is afraid he will cease to exist if Riley forgets about him entirely. Bing-Bong joins Joy and Sadness as they attempt to get back to the control room, where Anger, Fear and Disgust reason that Riley must take drastic action if she is ever to be happy again.
While this may all sound complicated, Docter and his crew lay it out in terms that are easily digestible to young minds, while being equally resonant to adults as well. The montage of watching Riley grow from little squealing baby to young girl on the cusp of adolescence is particularly haunting from a parents’ perspective – the time just flies – as are some of the later scenes in which we see what might have once been cherished memories disappear into nothingness. The emotions themselves are so well defined, both visually and as characters, that Inside Out could well serve as a springboard for parents to talk with children who are dealing with new feelings and are not quite sure how to express or handle them.
But again, this is not a lecture on the mapping of the human consciousness (although the movie could be described in that way). This is a thrilling journey through a series of wondrous set pieces, bolstered by some truly gorgeous production design and the fine work of the voice cast. Poehler is tremendous as Joy, doing her best to keep up her façade of optimism and happiness even as little flickers of peevishness, disappointment and exhaustion peek through. Smith brings compassion and empathy to what could have been a one-note role. Kaling, Hader and Black have less to do but are all equally distinctive, while Richard Kind is hilarious and genuinely heartbreaking as Bing-Bong, who serves in many ways as the heart of the story.
There are huge themes expressed in Inside Out, and some epic imagery at work as well, but Docter never lets go of the humanity at the center of the story. At its core, the film constantly unearths one truth after another about how we think, how we feel things and how we either retain or discard our memories, fashioning the way we live our lives in the process. This is a profound story about what it means to be human, and even though you could say there’s an irony in an animated film touching on fundamental qualities of what it means to be a flesh-and-blood person, the fact is that Pixar has excelled at this kind of thing over and over again in the past. Inside Out, however, takes the game to another level. It’s a movie that will stay in your memory – and your heart – for a long time to come.