When Pixar is at its best, the studio’s films aren’t just massively entertaining and wonderfully funny—they’re almost piercingly emotional, touching on universal sentiments with such clarity, such honesty you feel they’re speaking directly to you, and you alone. (This may be why people’s favorite Pixar films are so fiercely defended: We take these movies personally.) Inside Out may be the best Pixar has released in a while, especially after a string of disappointing and underwhelming efforts, but what’s most cheering about the film—and most like Pixar’s celebrated classics—is that it’s so emotionally astute. You cry because it makes you happy, and you cry because it makes you sad, and you cry because it’s all true.
The film stars Amy Poehler as the voice of Joy, a role tailor-made for her particular skill set. Inside Out quickly and deftly lays out its conceit: Inside the head of every person, there are five emotions who run Headquarters inside the brain. They are Fear, Anger, Disgust, Sadness and Joy. In the case of a young girl named Riley (Kaitlyn Dias), Joy is the team leader, and much like Poehler’s Leslie Knope character on Parks & Recreation, she’s as much a nonstop positivity machine as she is a busybody. The rest of her team—Fear (Bill Hader), Disgust (Mindy Kaling) and Anger (Lewis Black)—likes and respects her, but nobody gets along with Sadness (Phyllis Smith), who, as you might imagine, is kind of a downer.
A happy 11-year-old, Riley lives with her loving mom (Diane Lane) and dad (Kyle MacLachlan) in suburban Minnesota, and Joy is very proud of how she has helped raise her into such a friendly, sweet, joyful girl. What could possibly change that?
Inside Out provides the answer in the form of a cross-country move. Her dad drives the family to San Francisco for a new business venture, and Joy is concerned how this might impact Riley’s psyche. But super-sunny Joy remains confident that she can help steer the young woman through this new adventure.
Of course, it’s not that simple. For reasons that are never quite explained, Sadness suddenly takes to dominating Riley’s positive memories. Riley’s massive collection of memories are stored in individual spheres, each sphere color-coded depending on which of the five emotions is most prevalent throughout the memory. Joy takes great pride in how many yellow-sphered memories there are—she’s yellow, you see—but when Sadness (who’s blue, naturally) starts touching those spheres, the memories become something that Riley will remember with melancholy. Joy’s frustration with Sadness accidentally sends them both hurtling into Riley’s long-term storage space, far away from Headquarters. Without Joy there to guide Riley during this difficult transition into a new home and a new school, how can the young woman cope?
Inside Out is directed by Pete Docter (and co-directed by Ronaldo Del Carmen), who previously helmed Monsters, Inc. and Up, two of the most visually imaginative and gut-wrenchingly emotional Pixar films. Inside Out follows Docter’s formula, presenting us with a strident but lovable hero in Joy and a real sweetheart of a kid in Riley. In a quick montage, we see Joy as she observes Riley growing up, taking as much pride in her development as Riley’s own parents do. As voiced by Poehler, Joy is unceasingly warm and sunny: There’s real love in her characterization.
Poehler is such a perfectly bubbly Joy that she can overshadow her costars a tad. Smith (best known from the American version of The Office) is ostensibly one-note as the down-in-the-dumps Sadness—which almost feels like a redundant criticism to make—but the character has a secret side which the actress pulls out impressively. And while Hader, Kaling and Black have less to do, they’re a hoot working together as Riley’s negative emotions once Joy is gone from Headquarters.
The first act of Inside Out consists of establishing the rules of Headquarters and teasing the possibilities of what this conceit means for how we behave. (All five emotions man the command center, debating which sentiment Riley should be feeling at any moment. It’s like they’re the Mission Control of Riley’s emotional growth.) These early stretches are enormously clever, and while Inside Out is not one of the most innovatively designed animation projections from Pixar, it shows the company using the same impressive flights of fancy that powered most of their earlier critical sensations.
But Docter’s one consistent storytelling crutch presents itself again as Joy and Sadness are thrust into Riley’s long-term memories: The movie’s narrative becomes a blah journey/quest for our characters. Also true in Monsters, Inc. and Up, Docter’s heroes seem to always follow the most obvious journey. In Inside Out, Joy and Sadness have to negotiate the labyrinthine corridors of Riley’s brain to make their way back to Headquarters. The film remains visually witty—especially when they end up in a realm that reduces them to two dimensions—but in the thick of that second act, Inside Out stops being effortlessly magical and starts becoming a more perfunctory travelogue, more episodic than increasingly suspenseful (or even funny).
It’s easier to forgive Inside Out’s mid-movie drag, however, since Docter and his cowriters have come up with such a magnificent final stretch. It would be cruel to reveal the twists that occur in the third act, but Inside Out figures out how to satisfyingly resolve the ongoing tension between Joy and Sadness while also saying something meaningful about modern parenting and our society’s insistence that we do everything in our power to make sure our children are happy at all times. Much like Leslie Knope, Joy has to learn that indefatigable optimism does have its downside.
It seems cliché to praise an animated movie by saying it works for both kids and adults; in fact, Inside Out may actually be better for grown-ups. It will definitely remind them of the fragility of childhood, but it may also remind them about the simple need to embrace all of life’s different emotions—both for themselves and for their kids. And, most assuredly, it will make them cry.
Directors: Pete Docter, Ronaldo Del Carmen
Writers: Pete Docter, Meg LeFauve, Josh Cooley (screenplay); Pete Docter, Ronaldo Del Carmen (story)
Starring: Amy Poehler, Bill Hader, Mindy Kaling, Lewis Black, Phyllis Smith, Kaitlyn Dias, Diane Lane, Kyle MacLachlan
Release Date: Screening out of competition at the 2015 Cannes Film Festival; June 19, 2015
Tim Grierson is chief film critic for Paste and the vice president of the Los Angeles Film Critics Association. You can follow him on Twitter.