On Pixar’s team of All-Stars, Pete Docter has emerged as pretty much its Most Valuable Player. He’s the No. One guy, outside of co-founder John Lasseter, for dreaming up alternative universes and subtle characters whose heartfelt sentiments allow adults and kids alike may find laughter, joy and wisdom.
With “Inside Out” Docter doesn’t really top himself — with a filmography that already includes “Monsters, Inc.” and “Up” that’s an extremely high bar to vault — but certainly continues his winning streak of lovely flights of pure artistry and imagination. Plus he’s made one of the trippiest movies ever that aims for a mainstream embrace.
Having astutely observed his own daughter Ellie as she was growing up and often wondering what was going on inside her head, Docter confronted the world of a young and innocent mind. He realized at once that only animation could take an audience there.
So with Ellie as inspiration, Docter and his co-writers, Meg LeFauve, Josh Cooley and Ronnie Del Carmen (who co-directs), give us Riley (Kaitlyn Dias), an 11-year-old, hockey-loving Minnesotan whose life is turned upside down when her parents relocate to San Francisco.
But Riley isn’t really the film’s heroine. The key cast members, the stars of this movie in other words, are her emotions. For the setting is inside her head.
The primary emotion is Joy, who after all is the one who is there at Riley’s birth. Soon enough though comes Sadness followed by Fear, Anger and Disgust. Each has a job to do.
Fear watches over Riley’s safety, Anger makes certain she is not ignored and Disgust shields her from the world’s toxicity. Sadness, however, has an uncertain role. While logically the mortal enemy of Joy, the two in fact enjoy a symbiotic, even friendly relationship, the exact nature of which isn’t clear until near the end.
The “inside” world of Riley is designed somewhat like Tomorrowland, with a console in Headquarters — Head-quarters, get it? — where these emotions vie with each others and can take over to guide their charge through childhood. It’s a friendly rivalry though since their main goal is Riley’s emotional well being.
Among their chief responsibilities is storing Riley’s childhood “core” memories, visualized as round, colored, somewhat translucent balls that roll down conveyer tubes for safekeeping in Long-term Memory.
Floating Islands of Personality, built out into the space surrounding HQ, protect such values as fun, family and honesty but turn out to be more fragile than they look.
For Riley’s adjustment to her new life on the West Coast proves rougher than either she or her parents imagined. Soon a crisis atmosphere rules Headquarters.
Under stress to shore up Riley’s inside world, Joy and Sadness go missing. Finding themselves outside HQ’s control room at this crucial juncture, the two struggle to find a way back, a journey that takes them through such interior worlds as Dream Productions (done up like a Hollywood studio), Imagination Land, Abstract Thinking and the Subconscious (where all the “troublemakers” lurk, we are told).
Joy and Sadness hop a literal train of thought to get here and there and along the way get help from Riley’s nearly forgotten imaginary friend. They also encounter every child’s top nemesis, the Birthday Clown, whose bright makeup and wacky design can never coverup the true menace he represents.
The design of these emotional characters is true genius. Joy (voiced energetically by Amy Poehler), somewhat fuzzy at the edges of her body, is Riley’s cheerful alter ego, a little girl in a bright yellow dress and blue hair, a princess of happiness.
Sadness (a mopey, insecure Phyllis Smith) is blue (naturally) with huge round glasses over an oval face and dressed in a tight gray sweater. Fear (a fidgety Bill Hader) is the most cartoony of the bunch, a thing left over from the Termite Terrace of Looney Tunes perhaps with bug eyes, a rubbery purple body and long nose for danger.
Anger (a snarling Lewis Black) is short and squat with a molten-red head (easy for blowing up, you see). Eye-rolling Disgust (an edgy Mindy Kaling) is a green and snappy girl with dark hair and strident attitude.
Thus we, the visitors to this land of “Inside Out,” are constantly discovering and exploring new realms and creatures. Later in the movie we learn that everyone, children and adults alike, have headquarters populated by different versions of these five emotions.
So without an iota of pretense or pandering, Docter and his crew explore the realms of child psychology, adolescence and, yes, philosophy. “Inside Out” delivers the kind of wisdom one recalls from favorite fairy tales where wicked witches and determined heroes helped guide us through the dangerous shoals of childhood.
The cartoon is thus primal and ancient yet extraordinarily contemporary. At its best — and “Inside Out” is that — Pixar has reworked the fairy story for modern audiences. Its teams remain plugged into the adolescence of today yet schooled in the folkloric stories of old that set forth moral tales with fantastic landscapes populated with gnomes, goblins, mermaids, giants and elves.
Intended for adults as well as children, Pixar’s stories represent the new folklore. And Pete Docter has led the charge into the fantastic world of the interior, into the nightmares of “Monsters, Inc.,” the realms of hope and dreams in “Up” and now the minds of man in “Inside Out.”
He has turned the cliché of “thinking outside the box” upside down. He is thinking so deeply inside the box as to enter and visualize the emotional lives of his characters.
His films are as sophisticated as they are complex and enlightening. It could even be said he has re-imagined the cartoon, following lines of logic that cross Warner Bros.’ lunacy with classic Disney folklore and Studio Ghibli’s flights of spiritual fancy.
Opens: June 19, 205 (Walt Disney Studios)
Production company: Pixar Animation Studios
Voice cast: Amy Poehler, Bill Hader, Mindy Kaling, Lewis Black, Phyllis Smith, Kaitlyn Dias, Diane Lane, Kyle MacLachlan
Director: Pete Docter
Co-director: Ronnie Del Carmen
Screenwriters: Pete Docter, Meg LeFauve, Josh Cooley
Original story by: Pete Docter, Ronnie Del Carmen
Producer: Jonas Rivera
Executive producers: John Lasseter, Andrew Stanton
Music: Michael Giacchino
Editor: Kevin Nolting
Rated PG, 94 minutes