“Inside Out” has the cute characters, lively storytelling, technical marvels and beautiful production values that audiences expect from Pixar Animation Studios.
The movie is also an especially poignant entry in the Pixar catalog. Humor, while not entirely absent, takes a backseat to a dramatic, escalating crisis.
Co-directed by Oscar-winning Pixar veteran Pete Docter (“Monsters, Inc.,” “Up”) and Ronnie del Carmen, “Inside Out” dares to go dark. The filmmakers’ courage in taking the hard road, and the project in general, is worth applauding, but “Inside Out” may test the limits of Pixar’s core audience — young children and parents — to endure the trials the film’s principal characters face.
“Inside Out” goes inside the mind of Riley, an 11-year-old girl whose father’s job moves the family from Minnesota to San Francisco. Riley’s mind is a vast place, including a maze of memories, her islands of personality, the Train of Thought and a control center called Headquarters.
Riley, given a voice performance by Kaitlyn Dias, is almost a supporting player in “Inside Out.” Two of her emotions, Joy and Sadness, tumble, plunge, run, ride and fly through most of the movie’s action, adventure and suspense.
Joy and Sadness work in Headquarters with co-emotions Fear, Anger and Disgust. Even though Joy — a blue-haired pixie voiced by comic-actress Amy Poehler — is outnumbered by the other four, ostensibly negative, emotions in Riley’s head, she’s senior officer at Headquarters, which resembles the Starship Enterprise bridge.
The pep in Poehler’s vocal performance matches Joy’s golden glow.
The other emotions have their distinctive shapes and colors. There’s the round-faced Sadness (voice of Phyllis Smith). She’s blue.
The wary Fear (Bill Hader) is purple. Disgust (Mindy Kaling) is green and opinionated. Anger (Lewis Black) is red and prone toward blowing his top.
Riley, after living in a great house in Minnesota and having great friends and parents, finds her first days in San Francisco a shock.
The family’s new house is sad and run down. There’s no backyard. The moving van hasn’t arrived with the family’s stuff yet. And Riley’s first day at school goes terribly wrong.
But the biggest source of Riley’s pain is inside her head. The mischievous Sadness starts handling Riley’s core memories. Anything Sadness touches turns blue.
Joy tries to prevent Sadness from causing more trouble but, during another Sadness-induced accident, Joy and Sadness are sucked out of Headquarters through a pneumatic tube.
With Joy exiled from Headquarters in the outer realms of Riley’s mind, Fear, Anger and Disgust are left minding the control console at Headquarters.
As Joy and Sadness struggle to find their way back to Headquarters, Riley’s life goes from bad to worse. Meanwhile, the lost emotions find a lifeline when they meet Bing Bong, Riley’s not-quite-forgotten imaginary friend from early childhood.
His elephant’s trunk and cat’s tail are attached to a round and pink cotton-candy body. Richard Kind’s madcap voice performance as Bing Bong echoes such zany vaudevillians as Ed Wynn and Bert Lahr. Bing Bong makes a memorable impression.
Pixar’s computer-animated movies and Disney’s hand-drawn classics share a long history of going to dark places where hope is fading. “Inside Out” ups the dire circumstances. Tears will fall, on the screen and off.
Audiences and history will decide if the latest Pixar film goes overboard with desolation. Whatever the judgment, “Inside Out,” even when it’s tragic and sad, is beautifully rendered. Of course, there is a happy ending, but not without a price.