Inside the head of Riley, the 11-year-old heroine of Pixar's "Inside Out," are a bunch of Emotions jockeying for dominance. It's a cute idea but potentially problematic. Is this movie about a person, or the "people" inside her? Are these little characters alive, exactly? And what could happen, narratively speaking, to an Emotion?
Pixar's latest animated film turns out to be one of its best ideas ever. "Inside Out" is a whimsical adventure through the human psyche, and it's brimming with that classic Disney-Pixar magic. The kid-friendly notions of mental machinery may not be scientifically accurate, but "Inside Out" is reaching for deeper truths. This is one of those rare movies that will teach you something about who you are, and why.
It's also brilliantly funny and endlessly imaginative, thanks to a team of writers led by director Pete Docter ("Up"). The heroine-within-our-heroine (Kaitlyn Dias is the voice of Riley) is a manic pixie named Joy with the chirpy voice of Amy Poehler. Joy helps create happy memories -- little amber-colored spheres -- that support the pillars of Riley's personality: Friendship Island, Family Island and so on. Fear (Bill Hader) keeps Riley safe, Anger (Lewis Black) improves her hockey game and Disgust (Mindy Kaling) handles not only food issues but matters of fashion and social norms.
As for the listless blue lump called Sadness (Phyllis Smith), "I don't know what she does," says Joy. Those two opposing Emotions become the stars of the buddy-comedy that follows. When Riley and her parents (Diane Lane and Kyle MacLachlan) move from bucolic Minnesota to urban San Francisco, Joy and Sadness go missing, leaving the more negative Emotions at the controls. The result is a sullen preteen heading toward emotional shutdown.
"Inside Out" leaves no metaphor unexplored, no joke uncracked. Joy and Sadness will peek into the Subconscious, catch a Train of Thought and even sneak onto the back lot of Dream Productions. Riley's imaginary friend, Bing Bong (Richard Kind), emerges from Long-Term Memory to help.
By making invisible concepts visible, "Inside Out" does a marvelous job of explaining the way the world affects us, and vice versa. It also proves that Sadness has her uses, something that children and adults alike may find comforting to know.
The animated Amy Poehler in four more animated roles
"Inside Out" star Amy Poehler has found her voice as an actress. Here are four more animated features where you've heard her golden throat.
SHREK THE THIRD (2007) -- Poehler's Snow White was no shrinking violet, especially when she rocked out on Led Zeppelin's "Immigrant Song" to band together the forest animals to attack the castle guards.
DR. SEUSS' HORTON HEARS A WHO! (2008) -- In this film version of the children's classic, Poehler was the voice of Sally O'Malley, wife to the Mayor of Whoville and the mother of 96 children, which accounted for a considerable portion of the town's population.
ALVIN AND THE CHIPMUNKS: THE SQUEAKQUEL (2009) -- Poehler was all smiles and chipmunk cheeks as Eleanor, one-third of the Chipettes, a female rock trio who start off as rivals to Alvin and the boys. Christina Applegate and Anna Faris voiced the other Chipettes, who put their spin on "Single Ladies" and "Put Your Records On." They were heard again in 2011's "Alvin and the Chipmunks: Chipwrecked."
FREE BIRDS (2013) -- The feathers flew in this animated flick featuring Poehler as a lovable turkey who falls for a rebellious gobbler (voiced by Owen Wilson) who's out to change the Thanksgiving menu. Unfortunately, the movie was something of a Swift Butterball at the box office.