Pixar’s films have always, truly, been more for adults than children, and Inside Out, if not the studio’s best, is certainly one of their most insightful pictures. The premise itself is genius (the movie alternates between 11-year-old Riley’s inner emotions and her outer life seamlessly). Pete Doctor and his team turn these abstract thoughts and concepts into literal structures, objects, and characters; this is not only incredibly witty (such as a thought train whose workers “go on break” whenever Riley goes to sleep) but downright brilliant. Memories are realized into glowing orbs that are “downloaded” at the end of every day into the “long term memory” bank (which has been literalized) and each character’s actions have a believable effect on Riley.
Joy (voiced by Amy Poehler) has dominated Riley’s life for most of her 11 years. She’s in charge, primarily, of her four emotion co-workers: Disgust (Mindy Kaling), Fear (Bill Hader), Anger (Lewis Black), and Sadness (Phyllis Smith). After Riley’s parents move away from their home in Minnesota for work related reasons Joy finds her status as leader challenged by Sadness. The story is told with vibrant, stunning animation, and the usual Pixar wit is on display as well (the three “supporting” emotions are all amusing, and Doctor mines the “Inside/Out” concept for many laugh-out-loud moments).
The real brilliance of Inside Out emerges in its latter half, as the dueling duo of Joy and Sadness begin seeing the signs of a potential relationship, making this Pixar’s most poignant picture since WALL-E. It is rare for any film, much less a “children’s,” to present the idea of Sadness as not only a necessary emotion, but an important one. The way Doctor and his team realize, visually, the synergy of the two lead emotions in Riley’s life is truly powerful, both inside Riley’s head, and out. Inside Out suggests, perhaps most strongly in its final image of a tearful smile, that we need Sadness to experience true Joy.