Like all of us, tomboyish eleven year old Riley (voiced by Kaitlyn Dias) is guided by her emotions. The emotions live in Headquarters, the control center in Riley's mind, where they help advise her through everyday life. Joy (Amy Poehler) rules the roost, keeping the other emotions, Sadness (Phyllis Smith), Fear (Bill Hader), Anger (Lewis Smith) and Disgust (Mindy Kaling), in check. But when Riley is suddenly uprooted from her happy, hockey-playing home in Minnesota to begin a troubling new life in San Francisco, her emotions are in turmoil. As Riley struggles to adjust to her changing world, she grows sadder each day. Whereupon, to safeguard Riley's happiness, Joy resorts to desperate action with unforeseen consequences.
Inspired by his own experience of an uprooted childhood director Pete Docter takes what is in essence the simple story of a little girl's anxieties over moving home and fashions a mind-bending epic, weaving a sense of wonder about the human psyche. Co-written by Meg LeFauve and Josh Cooley, Inside Out transforms pre-adolescent insecurities into an event with consequences as world-shattering as anything in 2015's other grandiose epics Avengers: Age of Ultron or Star Wars: The Force Awakens. Yet Pixar's trippiest film also proved to be their most divisive. For as many praised its wit, heart, ambition and ingenuity, an equally vocal contingent lambasted what they perceived as a 'repetitive plot' (another Pixar film with two mismatched characters on an eye-opening journey) with a preponderance of 'psychobabble', 'uninspired visuals' (really?) and, perhaps most ludicrously, 'anti-male bias.' Should saner heads prevail, Inside Out may well be remembered as Pixar's most groundbreaking, nuanced and emotionally resonant animation along with Docter's equally affecting Up (2009).
From Toy Story (1995) to Finding Nemo (2003) and beyond, Pixar have always told stories that set characters on the arduous road to emotional maturity. Inside Out is at once their most literal treatment of this theme while also the most inspired and complex, quite possibly taking a stylistic cue from the classic cartoons of artist-led studio UPA. In particular Gerald McBoing-Boing (1951), made in collaboration with pioneering children's author Dr. Seuss. Among many achievements the film triumphantly visualizes abstract ideas in a manner immediately accessible to younger viewers. Hence glowing memory orbs serve as Joy's tangible goal, giant, crumbling 'Islands of Personality' signal tumultuous changes in Riley's morphing psychological state, mind workers dispose of useless memories (which leads to a very funny reoccurring gag about an annoying bubblegum commercial) and train of thought is a literal Train of Thought. Even the throwaway gag about how facts and opinions look the same is genius.
Interwoven midst such highlights as a jaunt through the realm of Abstract Thought and a dream factory styled like an old-time Hollywood studio that expand the possibilities of the animated medium, Inside Out finds new ways to tug at our heartstrings while making us think. Especially moving is a subplot involving Bing-Bong (Richard Kind), Riley's forgotten imaginary friend, which has a devastating emotional pay-off. The filmmakers ground their visual flourishes in an intelligent story hinging on a message that change is a necessary part of growing up and sadness a perfectly healthy part of that process. As our protagonists come to realize, one cannot be happy all the time and forced happiness is no way to deal with the complexities of life. Amy Poehler's exuberant vocal turn drives the movie though the entire ensemble etch vivid characters in particular Phyllis Smith's oddly lovable Sadness. Some beautifully poetic sequences (e.g. the scene where Joy ice-skates along with Riley's memory) go a long way to underlining Joy's core motivation. The manic pixie has her share of flaws but at heart her love for Riley is sincere. It also helps that Riley herself is perhaps the most faceted and affecting human character in Pixar's arsenal since Carl Fredricksen. Well voiced by young actress Kaitlyn Dias she is a likeable pre-teen whose fragile sense of self-worth buckles under the strain of change and trying to stay strong for her family. It is also great to hear Diane Lane and Kyle MacLachlan's voices in a Pixar movie. Ultimately, Inside Out reaffirms the much maligned ideal of traditional family values without seeming excessively sentimental. It is conceivable that the film's greatest achievement could be that simply discussing its plot with a child can allow a greater insight into a family's collective emotional mind-set.