The genius and the flaws of beloved animation giant Pixar‘s latest film, Pete Docter‘s “Inside Out,” both derive from exactly the same source: the film’s vertiginously high concept. Imagining a “Herman’s Head“-style universe in which every person (and as the brilliantly funny end credits suggest, every dog and cat, too) is governed by a command center crew made up of their five essential emotions, the film, like so many childhood classics, is an extended metaphor for the bittersweet process of growing up, and espouses some surprisingly complex philosophies on that topic, amid all the sweet, goofy gags.
But to get there, and to create the framework within which to deliver the desired thrills and spills, requires a lot of set up and exposition, which contributes to a voiceover-heavy introduction, and occasional pauses in the action while a character delivers a gobbit of explanation. It can feel didactic in a way that the let-the-pictures-tell-the-story elegance of “Toy Story” and Docter’s own “Up” never did. And sometimes these hurried, on-the-fly explanations of why we have to go somewhere or what the next goal is can draw attention to the film’s construction in a way that makes it feel less wondrously imagined than conveniently contrived. However, once the gigantic machine is up and running, these issues mostly fall away like booster engines from a space rocket, and the film, in the second half of its slim 94 minute run time, soars right into that Pixar-trademarked sweet spot, in the tender area between deliriously happy and tremblingly sad.
Riley (voiced by Kaitlyn Dias) is eleven years old, and she and her parents are moving from Minnesota to San Francisco for her father’s job. In Minnesota, she was a very happy child, as proudly demonstrated to us by Joy (Amy Poehler), who is the ringleader of Riley’s emotional team, which also includes Sadness (Phyllis Smith), Anger (Lewis Black), Disgust (Mindy Kaling) and Fear (Bill Hader). And this is where it gets a bit complicated.
In the command center from which they operate, Joy and co. are in charge of modulating Riley’s moods and also of storing her memories, here rendered as glass marbles that are color-coded according to whether they’re happy or sad or fearful, etc. Five of these memories are “core memories,” single moments that power one of Riley’s Islands of Personality — which look a bit like floating amusement parks dedicated to each of Riley’s defining traits — Honesty, Friendship, Family, Goofball and, erm, Hockey. But after a scuffle in HQ, these precious five memories get siphoned away and Joy chases after them, with Sadness in tow. This means, of course, that Riley’s sense of happiness goes AWOL while she negotiates a new school, a new house, losing contact with her old friends, and trying to join a new hockey team.
The film switches between Riley’s real-life circumstances and the epic journey that Joy and Sadness take through her inner landscape to get back to HQ, in a way that often conflates brilliantly. And the inner landscape is where the film’s real dizzying imagination and loopy humor comes into play, as Joy voyages through the Long Term Memory (complete with an irritating gum commercial jingle that becomes a recurring joke), crosses terrain like Abstract Thought (where she briefly becomes a Cubist representation of herself, then a 2D collection of shapes, then a line), rides a Train of Thought, and passes divertingly through Dreamland, which is rendered as a movie studio, of course, complete with lovely in-jokey references to Hitchcock. And most touchingly of all, with a sweet nod back to the arc of the “Toy Story” films, she teams up with Riley’s childhood imaginary friend, Bing Bong (Richard Kind), who drives a makeshift rocket powered by song; it’s quite something to sense an entire theater full of hardened film hacks reduced to lachrymose sniffling messes by the fate of a cat/dolphin/elephant hybrid in a silly hat.
With so much going on and so many possibilities for nods and winks, some of the elements can come across as a little shorthanded, like Riley’s fears, for example, where broccoli and clowns figure largely. And the characterization of the individual emotions early on feels one-note, but it’s necessarily so. After all, Joy has to be unswervingly upbeat, Sadness has to be constantly apologizing for being such a downer, and so on. But the film simply gets better, funnier and cleverer as it moves on. And seeing as its ultimate moral is about how part of maturing is realizing that our entire panoply of feelings are crucial to making us who we are, it is appropriate that each of the emotions becomes a more complex and more interesting character as they, too, learn these new lessons. And there are plenty of opportunities for a witty kind of cross-wiring, as when Disgust tries to mimic Joy and winds up at sarcasm, which is exactly right, if you think about it.
Pretty to look at (the real world segments, especially, are among the loveliest animations the studio have ever done), the film is not quite the perfection of Pixar’s greatest output, but no matter how much you may put your dukes up to a movie so shamelessly manipulative, you will be disarmed. Not only because the film is so overtly about emotional manipulation, but also because, for all the Disneyfication of Pixar that we fear (ridiculously enough, the Disney logo got a smattering of boos, while the Pixar logo was roundly cheered), “Inside Out” is not just fun and breezy, it’s also truly weird and wicked smart in its thoroughly heartfelt conclusions. After its closing credits that feature terrific, well-observed little vignettes of the emotional HQs of a succession of side characters (would watch a whole film of this in a heartbeat) brain buzzing and cheeks damp, “Inside Out” is a pretty good description of how you’ll most likely be feeling. Your cute inner Joy will be hugging your dumpy inner Sadness as the best of friends, because Pixar has so winningly found poetry in emotion. [B+]