Review: Amy Poehler’s tremendous work anchors the emotional ‘Inside Out’

While it's clear that each new release from Pixar seems to spur people to offer a fresh assessment of the company's entire output, I'd rather not immediately try to figure out where “Inside Out” lands by comparison. It seems like a reductive way to approach this surprisingly sophisticated emotional experience. Co-directors Pete Docter and Ronnie Del Carmen have told a very, very small-scale story when you look at what happens in the actual physical world. But in doing so, they've done something very powerful, because they have paid full respect to just how turbulent and important the inner life of a child can be.

Ah, hell, who am I kidding? “Inside Out” works because we are all always wrestling with the particular balance required to keep us functioning. The film imagines five distinct beings that work in harmony (hopefully) inside each person: Joy, Sadness, Fear, Disgust, and Anger. To be fair, that's just in the control room. There's a fairly complex ecosystem at work inside the mind, which the movie makes clear is not the same thing at the brain. This isn't “Innerspace,” where characters are racing around the recognizable landmarks of the body. Instead, this is pure metaphor, a way for Docter and Del Carmen to dig deep into how we react when we are faced with some of life's defining moments.

It's a subject that's been on my mind lately for fairly obvious reasons. The last year has pushed my children out of the comfortable life they'd experienced up till now thanks to a fairly rancorous divorce, and I carry so much anxiety and guilt about what we're doing to them that I've stopped sleeping. Like, completely. If there are five little cartoon characters sitting at a control panel in my mind, they have stopped doing at least one of their jobs altogether. What “Inside Out” does is create a vocabulary that parents can use to talk to their children about things that may feel too big for words, and that would be invaluable even if the film weren't also tremendously entertaining.

In the film, we're introduced to Riley (Kaitlin Dias), a twelve-year-old girl who has spent her whole life in the same place. Her life in Minnesota is presented as a fairly idyllic version of childhood, and when her parents pick her up and move to San Francisco for Dad (Kyle McLachlan) to be part of a new tech start-up, Riley is thrown into turmoil and completely unequipped to deal with it. She gets acutely homesick and is afraid to talk to her parents about it. That's really all that happens in the film, but it's very clever. If the real-world story was complicated and the film was also trying to establish this complicated set of rules and this brand-new inner landscape, it would be way too much for an audience. Besides… that's the point. What looks simple is anything but simple inside of us. Every single day can be a struggle when things are out of balance, and inside Riley, there is a huge amount of chaos thanks to Joy (Amy Poehler), Sadness (Phyllis Smith), Fear (Bill Hader), Disgust (Mindy Kaling) and Anger (Lewis Black). While they each have their roles, Joy is clearly in charge, and she works tirelessly to minimize any role Sadness might play in Riley's life. While the entire voice cast is adept and perfectly chosen, Poehler does a heroic job of serving as a binding agent that holds the film together.

When Sadness finds herself unable to do what Joy asks, randomly touching memories and taking control of the board at odd moments, Joy overreacts, and both of them are pulled out of headquarters, sent scrambling to find a way back while watching as the structure of Riley's inner life begins to collapse around them. Remember how emotionally raw the opening of “Up” was? Docter managed to paint an entire marriage in miniature, and in doing so, revealed just how entire lives boil down to key turning points, moments that matter that define who we are from that point forward. Now he's found a way to show us what happens in those moments where our kids transition from the children they were to the adults they'll be, and how that process is terribly sad and joyous at the same time. Right now, I'm watching my older son start to grab hold of the reins of adolescence, and we're just at the very beginning of it, but the change in him, the onset of a different personality entirely, has been wrenching in some ways. Up till now, my kids have both been pretty much blessed with lives of no resistance. This divorce introduced uncertainty into their world in a way I regret, but this is the reality of what we're doing now. I can't make their world something it isn't, so I need to figure out how to make this work for them, how to help them through it. There's one idea here about how each of the core memories creates an actual island that represents some key piece of the person's personality that leads to the most emotionally upsetting image I've seen since the baby on the beach in “Under The Skin,” and the difference here is that this metaphor deals with something that every parent absolutely will face.

There's a great sense of invention to the way they've laid out the landscape of the mind here, and there are some sequences that are pure animation in a way that Pixar rarely gets to indulge in their features. We're talking “Duck Amuck” style surrealism in a few places. There's an entire character named Bing Bong who has barely shown up in any of the advertising for the film, and he plays a crucial role in the life of Riley. It's a lovely performance by Richard Kind, and I cannot say enough good about the work by Poehler and by Smith as Joy and Sadness. They have to convey some pretty heavy and complicated emotional material, and there's not a false note in the entire thing. Ralph Eggleston's production design team knocked this one out of the ballpark, and it's a beautiful film to look at, a beautiful world to spend time in. I love the way the film opens, the way Joy figures out how things work, the way the world slowly fills in around her. There is so much heart and soul in this film, so much and felt so deeply, that it feels more intimate that most Hollywood movies. It's amazing to me that what is, in essence, the most artificial of all film forms can be used so well to tell something that is so human and so honest. This is the key to Pixar's real appeal, and it's the thing that no imitator can ever get right, no matter what technology they bring to bear. Michael Giacchino's score is terrific, expertly charting one of the most emotional experiences you'll have in a theater this year.

As long as Pixar is willing to let their filmmakers take these big swings at these giant themes, they're going to continue to be one of the most exciting creative companies around. I will happily ignore something like “Cars 2” if it pays for them to be able to take the time to make something this great.

“Inside Out” is in theaters everywhere on Friday.