CANNES — Stop and think about it for a just a minute. Imagine a movie almost completely centered on individual emotions living in a young girl's head. Not a short, but a feature length film. It sounds like some sort of nightmare screenwriting assignment, doesn’t it? How do you explain how the emotions work? Do they control her every action? Do they grow and mature alongside her? How do you make a coherent, entertaining and moving experience out of that concept? Pete Docter, who previously directed one of Pixar's best films, "Up," doesn't make things easy on himself taking on that challenge and it makes the success of "Inside Out" more admirable than it initially might seem.
The most important character in "Inside Out" is actually our heroine, Riley (eventually voiced by Kaitlyn Dias). Her birth spurs the creation of the first emotion, Joy (Amy Poehler), but as she grows, Sadness (Phyllis Smith), Fear (Bill Hader), Disgust (Mindy Kaling) and Anger (Lewis Black) arrive to balance out her emotional makeup. Each has a key role to play in Riley’s life, but it's Joy who diligently makes it her responsibility to command the team and keep her as happy as possible.
The emotions live in a control room in Riley's mind and are responsible for making sure her core memories are protected. Joy believes these important core thoughts need to be happy memories and is somewhat obsessive that the timid and shy Sadness not taint them with her touch. As Riley grows, however, the emotions begin to learn it can be harder to influence her reactions. This first becomes apparent when Riley's parents (Diane Lane and Kyle Maclachlan) move the family from a quiet country home in Minnesota to a townhouse in San Francisco.
Like many kids uprooted at an early age, Riley does not adjust well to her new surroundings. She starts to act out and rebel against her parents, who, unable to put two and two together, seem puzzled by her new behavior. At the exact same time Riley takes a turn for the worse, Sadness has done the unthinkable and touched a number of core memories that are contributing to Riley’s sour mood. Joy and Sadness bicker over these memories (which look like large spheres) and in a dispute find themselves sucked out of the headquarters.
This turns out to be the worst possible scenario for Riley, because now Fear, Disgust and Anger are at the helm. Without the influence of Joy and Sadness, Riley will be even more moody than your typically headstrong 11-year-old. As the two emotions attempt to find their way back to Headquarters, Riley concocts a plan to escape to the one place she was happy: her old home. Joy and Sadness need to get back in time to stabilize her psyche before she does something very dangerous.
If you are thinking that Joy and Sadness storyline sounds like a very familiar movie trope, you’re absolutely right. The second half of film finds them on a road trip through Long Term Memory and numerous unexpected obstacles such as Imagination Land to find their way back to Headquarters. What is unexpected is for Riley’s fate to take a bit of a back seat to Joy’s own arc. Joy has always dismissed Sadness, but is confronted with the fact that her fellow emotion is essential to Riley’s being. And this is where Docter shows true brilliance in the vocal casting of Poehler and Smith.
In the past, Pixar has found tremendous success in harnessing dramatic work from voice actors who are primarily known for their comedic talents. Can you imagine “Finding Nemo” pulling the heartstrings without Albert Brooks and Ellen DeGeneres, or caring about Remy’s fate in “Ratatouille” without the contributions of Patton Oswalt? Docter makes the smart choice of casting all of the emotions in Riley’s head with comedic actors, but Poehler and Smith (who first gained notice on “The Office”) bring an unexpected depth to these seemingly one-dimensional emotions that no editor spending hours at a mixing console could muster on his or her own. Smith is particularly heartbreaking, delivering one of the finest performances of her career.
What truly makes “Inside Out” remarkable, however, is how incredibly creative it is. Once Joy and Sadness are stuck in Long Term Memory you can see the story beats laid out in front of you, but Docter and his animators constantly surprise with the inhabitants they have populated throughout Riley’s mind. From her abandoned imaginary friend Bing Bong (Richard Kind) to the eye-popping realization of Abstract World, there is a wealth of new ideas here that put recent Pixar and Walt Disney Animation Studios films to shame.
The dramatic elements of “Inside Out” will stick with you, but don’t fear. The humor is palpable. Sure, the shtick of having an intense and loud comedian such as Black voice Anger is painfully obvious, but it’s in the emotional control rooms of Riley’s parents where, again, the film’s creativity and the laughs really come in to play. And when Docter depicts the emotions in people outside Riley’s family? It only serves to answer the main question we asked at the beginning of this review. You can make a coherent, entertaining and moving experience out of this concept as a feature length film and it can be very, very good.
“Inside Out” opens nationwide on June 16.