By now we've hopefully gotten past the ridiculous idea that animation is strictly for kids and accepted it as a versatile medium that allows filmmakers the means to tell stories which wouldn't be physically possible (or would simply be too expensive) with a live-action film. Take Pixar's astonishing new film, "Inside Out," whose protagonists are the personified emotions of a preadolescent girl; in no other medium would visualizing this story in such detail be conceivable. Co-directors Pete Docter and Ronaldo Del Carmen illustrate complex ideas and abstract concepts with stylized, gorgeously rendered animation, making them accessible to the youngest of audiences. In the process they've created one of Pixar's finest films, easily holding up against the studio's best.
The majority of "Inside Out" takes place inside the head of 11-year-old Riley (Kaitlyn Dias). There, we meet the five emotions who control her behavior: Joy, a Tinkerbell-esque yellow sprite voiced by Amy Poehler; mopey, blue Sadness (a terrific Phyllis Smith, "The Office"); sarcastic, green Disgust (Mindy Kaling); panicky, purple Fear (Bill Hader); and fiery, red Anger (Lewis Black).
The world in which the emotions reside is established in a brisk introduction: they work in Headquarters, jockeying for a turn at the control panel that dictates Riley's actions. They're also in charge of storing memories, which emerge as glowing orbs tinged the color of whichever emotion is most associated with that particular experience. Among these are Riley's core memories, recounting crucial incidents which form the basis of her identity. The film's portrayal of the human mind is ingenious; to gain insight into how to plot it all out, writers Meg LeFauve, Josh Cooley, and Docter consulted with various researchers and experts in the field of psychology, and it shows.
Joy is the de facto leader of the team, and has been since the day Riley was born. A natural cheerleader, she also has a tendency to be pushy and a bit bossy (there's a lot of Leslie Knope in Poehler's performance); she wants nothing more to make sure Riley is always happy. But then Riley and her parents (Diane Lane and Kyle MacLachlan) leave their home in Minnesota to make a new life in San Francisco. As Riley struggles in adjusting to her new surroundings, keeping Riley's spirits up suddenly isn't as easy as it once was. Sadness feels a growing compulsion to touch Riley's memories, inflecting her joyous recollections of the past with a wistful melancholy. If that's not an idea you can relate to, you're probably still 6 years old (and kudos to you for your impeccable choice in reading material). As if the outside turmoil wasn't enough, an accident results in Joy and Sadness getting whisked away from Headquarters and find themselves lost in the recesses of Riley's mind, forcing them to work together to get themselves back where they belong. Their absence leaves only Fear, Disgust, and Anger at the helm of Riley's mind.
From there, the film becomes a buddy road trip story of sorts, as Joy and Sadness journey through the various areas of Riley's mind, hoping aboard a literal Train of Thought, touring Dream Productions, and descending into the dungeon of Riley's subconscious. Along the way, the pair adds an extra member to their party: Riley's imaginary friend, Bing Bong (Richard Kind). Part elephant, part dolphin, and a body made of cotton candy, Kind plays him as a sort of raggedy vaudeville performer, eager for another opportunity to entertain since being mostly discarded by Riley as she grows older. He's an instantly endearing character.
The film encourages empathy, occasionally flashing into other people's minds to remind us that everyone has feelings, and before judging too harshly, it's worth stopping to consider who might be guiding their control center; though a scene zipping into Riley's parents' minds strikes the film's sole false note, leaning a little too heavily on clichéd gender roles. Speaking of notes, composer Michael Giacchino provides wonderfully melodic support with a playful, jazz-influenced score that walks the line between upbeat and somber.
"Inside Out" is deceptively simple; a poignant examination of growing up, in the guise of a bright, candy-colored family film. This isn't to say kids won't be entertained -- this is Pixar we're talking about, so of course they will -- but I suspect the movie will hold a particular power for older audiences, especially parents. These hidden depths are mirrored in the look of the emotions themselves, who appear solid from afar but on closer inspection reveal that they're made up of drifting particles. As characters, by their nature they're one dimensional -- meant to express the sole emotion they symbolize -- but their trajectory from the pure emotion of childhood to the more muddled emotions that come with adolescence is fairly profound. Growing up requires that we navigate the sometimes conflicting emotions inside us. They all have their purpose -- sadness is every bit as important as joy -- and each an essential part of life.