Not everyone could dream up a pink elephant with a cat’s tail and some dolphin parts who’s mostly made of cotton candy and whose tears take the form of sugary treats.
But getting grown-ups to feel emotionally invested in that creature, named Bing Bong (voiced by Richard Kind), to the point where they may form some tears of their own? That’s something only Disney/Pixar could do.
Pete Docter has written and/or directed some truly remarkable films, including “Up,” “WALL-E” and the first two “Toy Story” adventures. By directing and co-writing “Inside Out,” along with Meg LeFauve and Josh Cooley, Docter has delivered one of the brainiest movies you’ll ever see. And not just because the majority of it takes place inside an 11-year-old girl’s noggin.
“Inside Out” focuses on the emotions that govern Riley Anderson’s (Kaitlyn Dias) behavior via the knobs, buttons and levers on a control panel in that part of her brain referred to as Headquarters.
Think the ’90s Fox sitcom “Herman’s Head” — only, you know, good.
When Riley is born, there’s only Joy (Amy Poehler), a yellow, pixie-ish bundle of positivity. She’s quickly joined by Sadness (“The Office’s” Phyllis Smith), a blue blob of despair who mopes about as though she’s always on the lookout for an oven to stick her head inside. “Crying helps me slow down and obsess about the weight of life’s problems,” she sighs.
Fear (Bill Hader), a purple, nervous nerd, shows up a few years later to keep Riley safe. Disgust (Mindy Kaling), a fashionable green diva, arrives the first time Riley’s parents (Diane Lane, Kyle MacLachlan) offer her broccoli. And Anger (Lewis Black), a fiery, red, hot head, shows up moments later when she’s threatened with missing dessert if she doesn’t eat that broccoli.
They all want what’s best for Riley, but their work is just that: It’s a job, as the emotions huddle around that control panel as though they’d just sent Alan B. Shepard into space. Each of Riley’s memories is delivered to Headquarters via a glowing sphere colored to match the emotion they evoke. Every night after quitting time, those globes are shipped off to Long-Term Memory.
Shortly after Riley’s family leaves the idylls of Minnesota, with its frozen lakes seemingly made for playing hockey, and moves to a gloomy neighborhood in San Francisco, Joy and Sadness are accidentally sucked into Long-Term leaving Anger, Fear and Disgust to try to run Riley’s life. To get back to Headquarters and provide Riley with the balance she needs, Joy and Sadness must journey through the dark recesses of Riley’s mind.
“Inside Out” is only the second original movie from Pixar since 2009’s “Up” as the company found itself stuck in a rash of sequels. The wait, though, was certainly worth it. You can go months at the multiplex, especially during the summer, without encountering the sheer tonnage of creativity that’s on display here.
During their trek back to Headquarters, Joy and Sadness venture through everything from Abstract Thought — the longer they stay, the more they begin to resemble a Picasso sketch — to Dream Productions, the Hollywood-style back lot where writers, directors and actors, including Rainbow Unicorn, the biggest star of them all, toil to keep Riley entertained while she sleeps.
The Forgetters (Paula Poundstone, Bobby Moynihan) decide which recollections Riley keeps and which are sent to the Memory Dump. Of her piano lessons, they conclude, “Save ‘Chopsticks’ and ‘Heart and Soul,’ and forget the rest.”
And deep in the back of her mind is Bing Bong, Riley’s imaginary friend who used to accompany her everywhere and desperately longs to be remembered one last time.
It’s all pretty heady stuff. Literally.
The emotions are expertly cast. When you think anger, Black already comes to mind. Disgust is an extension of that trendy-shallow thing Kaling does on “The Mindy Project.” And Sadness isn’t that far removed from what Smith was cranking out each week on “The Office” — although Phyllis never had to be dragged from place to place as Sadness is. There’s plenty of Joy — and joy — in “Inside Out,” but Sadness is its breakout star. She’s gloomily hilarious at every turn.
Alongside the positive messages about individuality, growing up and the acknowledgment that it’s not only OK but important to be sad at times, there’s plenty of silliness, madcap adventures and bright colors to keep the little ones entertained.
Like most Pixar efforts, there’s also quite a bit of “Inside Out” that’s just for adults — especially the gags about deja vu, “Chinatown” and what comes across as a very grown-up joke about bears living in San Francisco.
The result is vibrant, deeply funny and breathtakingly original.
If you haven’t seen a Pixar movie in a while, “Inside Out” just may blow your mind.
Contact Christopher Lawrence at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter: @life_onthecouch
PG; mild thematic elements and some action
At multiple locations