Inside Out is one of two offerings this year from Pixar, the second of which, The Good Dinosaur, is slated to arrive in November. That holiday-season release date makes it look like the studio is hoping that The Good Dinosaur will be an awards contender. But it’s hard to imagine it eclipsing Inside Out for conceptual brilliance or emotional power. (If it does, then 2015 will have been a very, very good year for Pixar.) Inside Out is possibly the most ingeniously devised film the studio has yet produced. It ranks with the Toy Story films in its ability to channel the emotional essence of childhood—not just what things look like from a child’s eye, but how they feel.
The feelings of children are foregrounded in Inside Out, which mostly takes place within the mind of eleven-year-old girl Riley in the wake of her family’s move from Minnesota to California. As Riley struggles to adjust to a new house and a new school, the anthropomorphic emotions within her head—Joy, Sadness, Anger, Disgust, and Fear—vie for control of her behavior. Anger, Fear, and Disgust take the helm during Riley’s miserable first week of school; that’s because Joy and Sadness have become lost in the recesses of her brain, which is rendered as a kind of labyrinthine theme park. With Sadness in tow, Joy spends the majority of the film trying to get back to headquarters so that she can cause Riley to experience happiness once again.
Joy, superbly voiced by Amy Poehler, is (naturally) peppy and upbeat, and spends much of the journey tolerating but also micromanaging the sluggish, depressive Sadness, who is (naturally) a bit of a downer. The de facto pilot of Riley’s consciousness, Joy wants nothing so much as for Riley to go through life in a state of continuous happiness, shielded from Sadness’s taint. In the end, however, Joy learns to surrender some of her control to Sadness, and the film intelligently recognizes that the two emotions can, and should, operate in tandem; that unpleasant emotions do important work; and that sadness and joy can end up shaping the same memories and experiences together (literally: each of Riley’s memories, visualized as marbles running along a Rube Goldberg-style rollercoaster track, is colored according to the emotion with which it’s associated).
Inside Out is the very definition of a high-concept movie, and in less capable hands it might have become grating and contrived. In the hands of Pixar auteur Pete Docter, however, its gimmicks, which include a Train of Thought and a dream factory, are brilliantly imagined. (It’s a little bit like a Charlie Kaufman fantasy with the sharp edges sanded down for kid-proofing.) Docter is also an accomplished sentimentalist: he was the mastermind behind 2009’s Up, the opening sequence of which is all but engineered to make viewers cry. A tearjerker in its own right, Inside Out proves that Docter can get inside our heads and pull our emotional strings as well as any of his characters.