A consistently intelligent (or at least bright), coherently constructed comedy that is on occasion a rather pointed critique of the American education system in the…
"Inside Out," a comedy-adventure set inside the mind of an 11-year old girl, is the kind of classic that lingers in the mind after you've seen it, sparking personal associations. And if it's as successful as I suspect it will be, it could shake American studio animation out of the doldrums it's been mired in for years. It avoids a lot of the cliched visuals and storytelling beats that make even the best Pixar movies, and a lot of movies by Pixar's competitors, feel too familiar. The best parts of it feel truly new, even as they channel previous animated classics (including the works of Hayao Miyazaki) and explore situations and feelings that everyone has experienced to some degree.
The bulk of the film is set inside the brain of young
Riley (Kaitlyn Dias), who's depressed about her mom and dad's decision to
move them from Minnesota to San Francisco, separating her from her friends. Riley's emotions are determined by the interplay of five overtly
"cartoonish" characters: Joy (Amy Poehler), a slender sprite-type who
looks a little bit like Tinkerbell without the wings; Sadness (Phyllis
Smith), who's soft and blue and recessive; Fear (Bill Hader), a scrawny, purple,
bug-eyed character with question-mark posture; Disgust (Mindy Kaling),
who's a rich green, and has a bit of a "Mean Girls" vibe; and Anger
(Lewis Black), a flat-topped fireplug with devilish red skin and a middle-manager's nondescript slacks, fat tie and short-sleeved shirt.
There's a master control room with a board that the five major emotions
jostle against each other to control. Sometimes Joy is the dominant
emotion, sometimes Fear, sometimes Sadness, etc., but never to the
exclusion of the others. The controller hears what the other emotions are saying, and
can't help but be affected by it.
The heroine's memories are represented by softball-sized spheres that are color-coded by dominant emotion (joy, sadness, fear and so forth), shipped from one mental location to another through a sort of vacuum tube-type system, then classified and stored as short-term memories or long-term memories, or tossed into an "abyss" that serves the same function here as the trash bin on a computer. ("Phone numbers?" grouses a worker in Riley's memory bank. "We don't need these. They're in her phone!") Riley's mental terrain has the jumbled, brightly colored, vacu-formed design of mass market toys or board games, with touches that suggest illustrated books, fantasy films (including Pixar's) and theme parks aimed at vacationing families (there are "islands" floating in mental space, dedicated to subjects that Riley thinks about a lot, like hockey). There's an imaginary boyfriend, a nonthreatening-teen-pop-idol type
who proclaims, "I would die for Riley. I live in Canada." A "Train of Thought" that carries us through Riley's subconscious evokes one of those miniature trains you ride at zoos; it chugs through the air on rails that materialize in front of the train and disintegrate behind it.
The story kicks into gear when Riley attends her new school on the first day of fifth grade and flashes back to a memory that's color-coded as "joyful," but ends up being reclassified as "sad" when Sadness touches it and causes Riley to cry in front of her classmates. Sadness has done this once before; she and Joy are the two dominant emotions in the film. This makes sense when you think about how nostalgia—which is what Riley is mostly feeling as she remembers her Minnesota past—combines these two feelings. A struggle between Joy and Sadness causes "core memories" to be knocked from their containers and accidentally vacuumed up, along with the two emotions, and spat into the wider world of Riley's emotional interior. The rest of the film is a race to prevent these core memories from being, basically, deleted. Meanwhile, back at headquarters, Fear, Anger and Disgust are running the show.