Not since 2009’s “Up” has Pixar Animation Studios/Walt Disney Pictures fashioned a clever, emotional, family-friendly film that could be embraced by children and adults alike; one that has not only a heart and brain, but a conscience, as well. After commercially-successful and Oscar-winning — but bland and unfulfilling — features such as “Brave” and “Big Hero 6,” this newest effort, Inside Out, returns the company to the undeniable fun, whimsy and ultimately tear-jerking movie that made Pixar the the gold standard of full-length animated pictures.
The story takes place mostly in the head of an 11-year old girl named Riley (voice of Kaitlyn Dias, “The Shifting”), who has just moved with her parents (voices of Diane Lane, “Man of Steel” and Kyle MacLachlan, “Portlandia” TV series) from Minnesota to San Francisco.
The real action — the intelligence, the comedy and the poetry — however, unfolds among Riley’s feelings. Her brain is controlled by five busy, often at-odds emotions: Fear (former “SNL” sketch artist Bill Hader), Anger (a ranting Lewis Black of “The Daily Show” TV series), Disgust (Mindy Kaling, “The Mindy Project” TV series), Sadness (Phyllis Smith, “The Office” TV series) and Joy (Amy Poehler, “Parks and Recreation” TV series). Each one has a necessary role to play, and they all carry out their duties in Riley’s neurological command center despite each having a very different and divergent role to play in her personality development.
Their voices are amazingly appropriate, but Sadness (who speaks in a depressed, sighing monotone) and Joy (constantly perky and always to be the glass half full) steal the show, but Joy is the boss. She’s a tornado of positive energy, what with trying to control Sadness and keeping Riley happy by making sure her core memories are only positive ones.
But those tasks are not necessarily mutually exclusive and when Sadness accidentally “infects” some of Riley’s memories (forcing the two to journey through her subconscious to save her), Joy finds things are not always what they seem and that even negative emotions have a vital place in our lives.
Meanwhile, like a typical 11-year old, the young lady is sinking more and more into a malaise her parents mistake for pre-teen rebellion and just plain defiance. Neither realizes that she is losing touch with her happier experiences and her firm past foundations (represented here by amusement park-type structures such as “Hockey Island,” “Family Island,” “Friendship Island,” etc.) are crumbling for lack of structure.
While trying to return to Headquarters, Joy and Sadness meet up with Bing Bong (Richard Kind, best known as Paul Lassiter in the 1990s TV series “Spin City”), Riley’s sentimental imaginary friend. He leads them in circles, but eventually gets them on the Train of Thought, which may or may not get them back home. All the while, Riley herself is trying to run away, thanks to a rash and irrational idea by Anger, as well as a disastrous hockey tryout, the breakup of her and her best friend in Minnesota and an embarrassing crying jag at her new school.
Most young girls will easily relate to the dilemma Riley finds herself in, while the majority of mothers and fathers who may not gone through it themselves can certainly see it in the children. Characters that could easily have been throwaways (parents, Bing Bong, the other emotions) are fully developed and nuanced, leaving this one of the more satisfying movie-going experiences in many moons.
All of this is wrapped in glorious color and the wonderful animation that has become the seamless standard for these studios. The silver, white and blue memory globes, the bright islands, the frenzied dreams and even the trip across the country recall the vivid hues and illustrations of “Cars,” “Finding Nemo” and “WALL-E,” to name just a few.
Laughs will be in abundance, a few tears will fall and just about everyone above the age of eight will no doubt leave the theater talking about this funny, charming and wonderful film, Inside Out, for a long time to come.