Pixar has taken us to exotic jungles ("Up"), into secret worlds ("Monsters, Inc.") and even through outer space ("Wall-E"). Now, the studio that's brought us such awe-inspiring animated films as the "Toy Story" trilogy and "Ratatouille" is leading audiences deep into the human mind for a charming adventure about growing up.
Directors Pete Docter ("Up") and Ronaldo Del Carmen transform the internal struggle of an 11-year-old girl name Riley into an odd couple/road trip romp by anthropomorphizing her emotions. Most of Riley's life, her mind's headquarters has been diplomatically dominated by Joy (Amy Poehler), although when appropriate, this literally radiant optimist steps aside for a few moments to allow Anger (Lewis Black), Fear (Bill Hader), Disgust (Mindy Kaling) and Sadness (Phyllis Smith) to express themselves. But when a move across the country throws off Riley's emotional equilibrium, Joy and Sadness have a scuffle that accidentally pitches them out of HQ, endangering Riley's well-being.
The film provides a colorful and varied landscape to represent Riley's inner trumoil. There are islands of personality that signify what matters most to her: family, friends, hockey and goofball good times. There's a labyrinthine library for long-term memories, a movie studio where her dreams are produced nightly, a train of thought, a furnace for abstract reasoning and a pit for things forgotten -- all of which Joy and Sadness traverse in a briskly paced quest.
Where the production design is compelling, the character design leaves something to be desired. The color-coded Emotions feel weirdly rudimentary for Pixar, looking like CG Muppets up close. However, their characterizations are keen, with charismatic voice work from talented comedians who perfectly encapsulate their given feeling. Who better than "The Daily Show's" mad ranter Lewis Black to channel Anger? "Saturday Night Live" alum Bill Hader's wild outbursts bring a welcomed whimsy to Fear. Mindy Kaling and Phyllis Smith amp up the driving emotion of the former "Office" mates divinely, with the latter finding lovely subtleties in her Sadness. And anyone who watched "Parks and Recreation" knows there's no voice in the world that better communicates Joy than Amy Poehler's. (Plus, keen-eyed fans of "The Mighty B!" might just pick out a nod to the brief but beautiful cartoon in the design of Riley's redheaded best friend.)
Just as the casting plays to grown-ups, so will the more cerebral gags, like when a flustered Joy knocks over some boxes, then haphazardly mixes up the storage of some "facts" and "opinions." Yet there's plenty of simple silliness and sweet slapstick for younger audiences, personified in Bing Bong (Richard Kind), a jaunty imaginary friend who's part cotton candy, part elephant and all heart. But what marks "Inside Out" as something special is the mature message it's sharing with kids.
A ball of energy, the endlessly optimistic Joy is quick to defend her fellow emotions against those who'd judge them. In the first act, she efficiently explains that Fear helps keep Riley safe, disgust helps her avoid being poisoned by broccoli, and Anger is very concerned with things being fair. But Sadness? Joy can't see the point in this maudlin little misfit. However, Riley isn't driven by her emotions alone; it's an interaction. So as the stress of the move hits her, Sadness is compelled to step out of the shadows, and teach Joy -- and by an extension the audience -- about her value. OK, maybe it's a lesson meant for more than kids alone.
"Inside Out" is a solid Pixar film, doling out laughs along with some moving moments that will likely cause more adults to tear up than tender tots. (If the end of "Toy Story 3" made you cry, bring a tissue.) This thoughtful film tackles a tricky topic with empathy, wit and warmth that makes it a joy to experience.
"Inside Out" opens Friday nationwide.