Talk about mind-boggling.
There’s so much invention, inspiration and insight in “Inside Out” that it’s hard to believe the film holds together as perfectly as it does. Metaphors lurk around every turn, intellectual concepts come easily into play, and the film glides through wild, imaginative constructs as if they’re everyday carnival rides. This isn’t a trip down the rabbit hole with Alice, this is a trip to the land behind your eyes. And that land is amazing, enlightening and consistently hilarious.
Most of the credit has to go to director and co-writer Pete Docter, who has already given us the Pixar wonders “Up,” “Monsters, Inc.” and “Wall-E.” It’s impossible to say “Inside Out” is his greatest achievement — those are some pretty great achievements — but, believe it or not, it’s by far his most daring.
The movie takes place for the most part inside the head of Riley (Kaitlyn Dias), an 11-year-old girl who’s just moved from Minnesota to San Francisco. Since birth, Riley’s been driven by the five emotions/attitudes in her control room: Joy (Amy Poehler, and it’s mostly her movie), Sadness (Phyllis Smith), Fear (Bill Hader), Anger (Lewis Black in full volcano mode) and Disgust (Mindy Kaling).
At any given moment, one of these characters can begin steering Riley, but, since she’s generally had a good life, Joy is mostly in charge. She oversees the protection of Riley’s core memories (in the shape of bowling balls) and monitors the health of the mind-lands that her life has built up — a land where family is cherished, another for goofiness, another for her love of hockey.
But just as Riley is having to deal with the shock of moving to a new town, making new friends, adjusting to a new house, Joy and Sadness get involved in a squabble that sends them — and Riley’s core memories — off to the back of Riley’s mind. Suddenly Fear, Disgust and Anger — not the most balanced trio — are running the show as the young girl attends her first day of school, tries out for a hockey team and inevitably blows up at her parents (Diane Lane and Kyle MacLachlan).
Meanwhile, the ever-upbeat Joy, dragging the morose Sadness, has to find her way through all sorts of parts of Riley’s mind — imagination, abstract thought, the scary subconscious — back to the control room. Luckily, they stumble on a fantastical guide named Bing Bong (Richard Kind), an elephant-cat-dolphin creature who was once Riley’s imaginary friend, but now wanders in the back alleys of her being.
So while Anger, Fear and Disgust are doing none too great a job of steering the young girl — and with many of her most cherished constructs crumbling as a result of their ineptitude — Joy and Sadness are negotiating all the ups and downs and ins and outs of the human psyche.
If all this sounds confusing and somewhat overwhelming, the wonder of “Inside Out” is that it makes perfect sense. And Docter keeps the humor-meter turned to 10 most of the time, incorporating grumbling mind-workers and goofy jokes into the yarn at every opportunity.
Small kids aren’t going to grasp the double entendres or psyche laughs, but they will be mesmerized by the grand fantasy of it all as well as by the extremely essential characters. This is a movie anyone with a mind, young or old, can embrace.
It may also be a movie that Hollywood can embrace. It’s hard to believe that anyone will make a film more ambitious and more fully realized this year than “Inside Out.”
Let the talk of a best picture Oscar win begin now.
Rated PG for mild thematic elements and some action
Running time: 94 minutes