Pixar’s Inside Out is a welcome and unusual offering, a film concerned with the small and specific in a way that I’m not sure has ever been represented in animation. The film is also a response to the critiques of Pixar for inadequate female representation, as well as a firm assertion of the depth and validity of children’s emotional lives. It sounds strange to heap all these superlatives on a film in which Amy Poehler voices a blue-haired sprite named Joy, butInside Out benefits greatly from the performances of Poehler and her well-cast costars as the different emotions of an 11-year old girl named Riley (Kaitlyn Dias). Joy’s chief rival for control of Riley’s “headquarters” is Sadness (Phyllis Smith of The Office), but Anger (Lewis Black), Disgust (Mindy Kaling), and Fear (Bill Hader) all have their moments. Riley’s happy life in Minnesota is uprooted when her family moves to San Francisco for her father’s work. Just as Joy finds herself ill-equipped to deal with all the changes, Sadness develops a inexplicable urge to color all of Riley’s memories.
The heart of Inside Out is the effort of Joy and Sadness to help Riley after an accident separates them from Headquarters. Their companion is Bing Bong (Richard Kind), an imaginary friend of Riley’s who hasn’t been needed for a few years. The corners of Riley’s mind are detailed with great specificity and visual imagination. Memories are characterized as marbles, each colored with the appropriate emotions, and areas such as Dreams (a movie studio) and Abstract Thought (the characters deconstruct into abstract shapes) each have their own individual character. This is all rich territory, and the stakes have never felt higher in a Pixar film than when Anger, Fear, and Disgust take over and (with the best of intentions) try to fix Riley’s troubled life. While in theory Pixar could return to this story later in Riley’s teenage years — creating a sort of animated Richard Linklater universe — it doesn’t need to. Inside Out is both insanely ambitious and very precious, just like the young lady at its center.