The very best Pixar films aren’t just children’s movies with references and touchstones to keep the adults interested; they’re ambitious, complex, deeply layered movies for grown-ups that happen to be populated with characters, colors and primary stories that appeal to children as well.
Who chokes up more at certain scenes from the “Toy Story” movies or “Finding Nemo” or “Up” — first-graders, or their parents and grandparents, who can fully relate to and understand what’s happening on all levels?
So it is with “Inside Out,” a bold, gorgeous, sweet, funny, sometimes heartbreakingly sad, candy-colored adventure that deserves an Academy Award nomination for best picture.
Not just in the animated category — in the big-kid section, right there with the top-tier live-action films. It’s one of the best movies of the year, period.
Based on an original idea by Pete Docter (“Up,” “Monsters, Inc.”) and co-directed by Docter and Ronaldo Del Carmen, “Inside Out” does a wonderful job of laying out the groundwork for the story to come in the opening sequences, in which a little girl named Riley (Kaitlyn Dias) is born in Minnesota and experiences the first few years of life.
We see Riley’s world through the emotions in her head — where we’ll be spending the bulk of the movie itself. (The story takes us outside Riley’s mind and into the “real” world just often enough for us to appreciate what she’s going through, and sometimes what her parents are feeling. It’s all done with a deft touch.)
Our narrator and tour guide is Joy (Amy Poehler, perfectly voice-cast and terrific throughout), a sort of a whirling, glowing Emoticon-Tinkerbell hybrid who introduces us to Riley’s other primary emotions, including:
• Sadness (Phyllis Smith from “The Office”), who can literally color memories forever simply by touching them.
• Fear (Bill Hader), who views every experience as potentially disastrous, but is sometimes a valuable asset.
• Anger (Lewis Black, of course!), ready to throw a tantrum whenever things don’t go Riley’s way.
• Disgust (Mindy Kaling), who, like the other emotions, has shades of other traits. (Disgust can be quite the little narcissist.)
At first things are pretty simple and straightforward for Baby Riley, as she experiences the Joy of parental love, Disgust when she tastes broccoli, Fear of noisy household appliances, etc., etc.
But then we jump forward to Riley’s world at age 11, when the family moves to San Francisco because her father has a new job opportunity — and Riley has to cope with everything from tension between her parents to living in a less-than-desirable neighborhood to missing her friends to feeling like an outcast at her new school.
Things are getting COMPLICATED inside Riley Central.
It’s like an animated “Wizard of Oz” adventure within Riley’s mind. Riley’s memories arrive in the form of color-coded orbs and are stored away. Some of her experiences become important, influential long-term memories; others are dumped into the vast wasteland of forgotten experiences. (That’s where we meet the discarded but still fiercely loyal Bing Bong, Riley’s imaginary friend from childhood, who is voiced by the invaluable Richard Kind. Oh, Bing Bong. He will melt your heart.)
As Riley becomes increasingly sad and resentful, Joy goes on a desperate quest to regain control or at least once again become a constant presence in Riley’s life, lest Disgust and Fear and Anger remain at the controls forever.
The Pixar animation team outdoes itself with vast, intricate, amazingly detailed landscapes ranging from the “movie studio” where Riley’s dreams are produced every night (with a sly nod to Hitchcock, among other filmmakers) to Riley’s long-term memory bank (she’s forgotten nearly all of her piano lessons, but an annoying jingle for chewing gum will be popping into her head forever) to the places where Riley’s subconscious and abstract thinking reside.
Not to mention the Train of Thought, which is literally a Train. Of Thought.
Pretty complicated fare for a Pixar film — or for any film, come to think of it — and viewers a few years younger than Riley’s 11 will probably get a little fidgety and a little frightened by some of the proceedings. (Let’s just say Riley’s primary nightmare is something to which nearly all of us can relate, regardless of age.) But even if some of the references go sailing over their heads, there’s such a visual feast in every frame of this film, it’s hard to imagine any child growing restless even during the darker and more complex passages.
Directed with great flair and pitch-perfect timing, brimming with sparkling visuals, filled with first-rate voice performances, thrilling adventures and unforgettable moments, “Inside-Out” is an instant classic.
Someday the children of the children who will love this film, will love this film.
Disney-Pixar presents a film directed by Pete Docter and Ronaldo Del Carmen and written by Docter, Meg LeFauve and Josh Cooley. Running time: 93 minutes. Rated PG (for mild thematic elements and some action). Opens Friday at local theaters.