review: The adaptable plot finds its way home.
Director Pete Docter's "Inside Out" springs from a single, terrific idea. What if a person's basic emotions were tiny humanoid sprites sharing a command center, a spacious variation on the one in the starship Enterprise but inside the human brain?
While the idea isn't new (you may recall the late 20th-century sitcom "Herman's Head," or not), it is vastly adaptable. As the Pixar Animation folks learned a long time ago, before they coupled up with Disney: If your premise has the knack of simplicity, you can pretzel your narrative any way you want, and still find your way back home.
Saying "Inside Out" is the best Disney-Pixar picture since "Up" in 2009 says less than it should, considering the distressing if profitable recent mediocrities "Cars 2" and "Monsters University." Some of "Inside Out's" internal complications are more fruitful than others. I saw the world premiere at Cannes in May; a second viewing reveals more fully the flaws in the overstuffed middle section — the manic, "Wreck-It Ralph" quality, as the audience lurches in and out of various parts of its 11-year-old protagonist's increasingly bummed-out psyche. For a while the film gets a little lost along with two of its primary brain-dwellers, Joy and Sadness, voiced by Amy Poehler and Phyllis Smith.
And then it finds its way home.
Home: Home, and where the heart is, guides the thinking of co-writer and director Docter's film, co-directed by Ronnie Del Carmen and co-written by Meg LeFauvre and Josh Cooley. "Inside Out" follows a few months in the life of Riley, voiced with un-actressy directness by Kaitlyn Dias. She's the daughter of a loving Minnesota couple (Diane Lane and Kyle MacLachlan) whose lives are shaken up by a move to San Francisco for dad's uncertain new start-up venture.
Suddenly Riley's sense of place is scrambled, and she's looking for a compass. Her emotions scramble in turn to work out some equilibrium. In addition to ringleader Joy and her flip side, Sadness, there's Anger (Lewis Black blowing his stack); Disgust (Mindy Kaling, bratting it up) and Fear (Bill Hader voicing a walking, talking twitch).
Each time Riley experiences a benchmark moment in her life, whether it's the first hockey goal or a stroll down the sidewalk with her best friend, it transforms into a "core memory," represented by a small, glowing round ball of the emotion-appropriate color. These and others are collected by Joy at the end of each day, and if the majority of the emotions are happy ones, it has been another success for the team.
The core memories power Riley's "islands of personality," aka, Goofball Island, Family Island, Honesty Island and others. Joy and Sadness are sucked up a tube and plunked down into uncharted territory near Riley's long-term memory storage. They must find their way back to the control center, amid an ever-shifting array of animation styles and dimensions, and assist Riley in her darkest moments as she struggles to settle into her new life.
Rugged terrain: A lot of younger viewers (and older ones) may be put off by the rugged emotional terrain of "Inside Out." The frenzied quality of the middle section is heightened by Riley's onetime imaginary friend, a hybrid cotton-candy-textured playmate called Bing Bong, voiced in a routinely aggravating turn by Richard Kind. (Even when he's underplaying, he's overplaying.) There's a moment when Fear, monitoring the action in Riley's fraught subconscious, jeers: "Boo! Pick a plot line!" That's an intriguing moment of self-critique.
But there's a truly lovely resolution, completely trackable even for preteens, resting on the notion of mixed emotions, and the value of acknowledging life's hardships, rather than papering them over with false good cheer.
This is why "Inside Out" works. We feel for the girl at its center, and when things go right after going wrong, the swell of emotion is neither cheap nor bombastic.
The musical score comes from the best in the business, Michael Giacchino, and while his work here is less vivid than his best, a film featuring a nearly nonstop barrage of ideas and voices needs some breathing room.
Perhaps Pixar will never again reach the heights of its remarkable string of masterworks, "Wall.E," "Ratatouille" and "Up." The best of "Inside Out" comes close. The life of Riley is not exotic; her troubles are not unique. But they are rendered with serious imagination by Docter and company.