“Inside Out” is all about feelings, both on the screen and in the audience. Director Pete Docter is, let’s not forget, the man responsible for the opening montage in “Up,” so if you think you’re getting out dry-eyed from a movie where one of the main characters is literally Sadness, you’re made of sterner stuff than I. (I’m still finding stray bits of the handkerchief I destroyed while watching “Toy Story 3.”)
The kind of movie that may forever change the way children — and even adults — discuss their feelings, “Inside Out” is an epic set inside a little girl’s mind, where her emotions have been kicked into high gear after her family uproots from Minnesota and relocates to San Francisco.
This being a Pixar film and not a Disney one, both parents are alive; this being a fantasy, they can afford a place in San Francisco even though dad’s company is still a start-up.
First things first: The film begins with the birth of Riley, and deep inside her head, we meet Joy (voiced by Amy Poehler), a sprightly pixie who generates all of Riley’s delighted gurgles. Joy is soon joined on the job by Sadness (Phyllis Smith, “The Office”), who’s in charge of crying. Before long, they’re sharing the control room in Riley’s brain with Fear (Bill Hader), Disgust (Mindy Kaling) and Anger (Lewis Black), all of whom will play a role in Riley’s development.
As Riley (Kaitlyn Dias) grows up, her brain develops particular “islands” devoted to her goofball sense of humor, her friendships, her skill at sports, her honesty and her love of her family. The move to California unsettles that real estate, as Riley must leave behind friends and her hockey team to face uncharted territory.
Joy goes into overdrive on the first day of her new school, trying to keep Sadness at bay — every time Sadness touches one of Riley’s memories, depicted as a glass marble, that memory becomes an unhappy one — leading to an accident in which Joy and Sadness get launched out to the furthest recesses of the brain.
With Fear, Anger and Disgust running the show, Riley slips deeply into a funk and considers running away back to Minnesota. Her well-meaning parents try to help, but it’s up to Joy and Sadness to get back to the controls to keep Riley from making mistakes that can’t be fixed.
Docter and co-director Ronaldo Del Carmen, working from a script by Docter, Meg LeFauve and Josh Cooley, have a lot of fun tooling around the brain, literalizing neurological concepts (Paula Poundstone and Bobby Moynihan play the workers who dump old memories to make way for new ones, and there’s a soundstage where Riley’s dreams are “produced”) while treating the place like an efficient factory that’s more “Everything You Always Wanted to Know About Sex” than “Herman’s Head.”
We get to follow our heroes through Riley’s abandoned imagination — where they meet her neglected made-up pal Bing Bong (Richard Kind) — and watch Joy discover that Sadness isn’t something you suppress. As the “Free to Be You and Me” TV special told us four decades ago, it’s OK to cry.
More than OK, in fact: There are moments in “Inside Out” that are as emotionally gutting as anything I’ve seen in a Pixar film. At the same time, though, I was surprised at how fleeting the experience felt. In the theater, I was moved and enchanted, but within hours, it all felt sketchy.
The best of the studio’s output mixes emotion and strong storytelling, resulting in movies that stay with you after even just one viewing; here, the “go to the place and get the thing” plotting feels at odds with the sweet central metaphor about finding balance and allowing yourself to feel your feelings. It smacks of the impulse that turned “WALL-E” from a lovely little silent movie to a knockabout chase in outer space.
There’s still a lot to love here, from an outstanding voice cast — which also includes Paula Pell, Diane Lane and Kyle MacLachlan — to a visual palette that contrasts the candy-colored world of a young girl’s mind with a more photo-realistic San Francisco.
A stronger structure underpinning these emotions run amok would have benefitted the film, but then what would feelings be without a little messiness? For many viewers, giving their own Joy and Sadness a workout will be enough to make “Inside Out” a valuable experience.