Inside Out is Pixar's best feature in years

Inside Out feels like the most personal movie Pixar has ever made. That's appropriate, because most of the film takes place inside the mind of its protagonist — the feisty, playful Riley (Kaitlyn Dias) — a young girl who loves hockey, her family and making her friends laugh. It's emotional, heartfelt, and often very funny.

Inside Out begins with Riley's birth, and the beginning of her five core emotions: Joy (Amy Poehler), Sadness (Phyllis Smith), Fear (Bill Hader), Disgust (Mindy Kahling) and anger (Lewis Black). Riley's mind is a wonder, organized into core memories and "islands" that make up her personality — there's an island for hockey, for her goofiness and sense of humor, for her family, her friends and her honesty. The emotions, led by the ebullient Joy, live in the control center and "drive" her life. It's a cute, clever setup, and leads to plenty of pop psychology jokes and imaginative setpieces, like a "train of thought" and a dream production center modeled after a Hollywood studio.

Life is great for Riley, living in hockey-loving Minnesota. But not long into Inside Out, Riley and her parents move to San Francisco (which serves as fodder for a few excellent bay area digs), which, naturally, causes distress and a whole flood of emotions. Joy, being the self-appointed leader of the group, has a hard time controlling Riley's well-being, especially with Sadness getting her hands on every new memory. Through a mishap, she and Sadness find themselves wandering around Riley's mind, leaving Fear, Disgust and Anger to rule over poor Riley's rough first days in her new home.

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Inside Out works so well because it knows how to depict universal experiences

Inside Out works so well because it knows how to depict universal experiences without making Riley some kind of abstract every-child. Riley is likable — early scenes of her running around with her underwear on her head, or scoring her first hockey goal by accident — endear her immediately. She's a quirky kid, a talented little athlete, and a loving family member. But everything she goes through is universal. A bad day at school. Moving to a new town. Feeling jealous when an old friend moves on. We've all been there, and Inside Out deftly handles that line.

The interplay among emotions is what really carries Inside Out. The core group is wonderful — Fear freaking out, Sadness slumping over, Joy trying to hold everyone together through it all. At a few points during the film, we get a peek inside other character's heads, with their own collection of emotions. Riley's mom and dad have hilariously kitted out teams, in one uproarious scene at the dinner table.

Much of the thrust of the film comes from Joy and Sadness' adventures in Riley's mind, and Riley's simultaneous experiences in the real world. Poehler and Smith have incredible interplay here, and their adventures — through Riley's imagination, her long term memory vault, even through her abstract thought processes are unpredictable and exciting. Whereas real-life Riley is making her way through mundane, painful early days in a new town, her emotions are exploring the terrifying, exhilarating new territory within. It works as a clever metaphor for the mind, as well as a mismatched buddy adventure.

Maybe because it's a movie about emotional experiences, but Inside Out made me laugh harder, and yes, cry more than any other Pixar film. I related immediately to Riley, and I felt for her through every loop on the emotional roller coaster she experienced. It's partially because I myself am facing a difficult cross-country move, and partially because I saw so much of myself in the grinning, goofy little athlete. But Inside Out worked just as well for the audiences I saw it with. At one point during a screening, a small child in the audience cried out tearfully at a character's departure. At another, I heard all the adults chuckling at a "bear" joke about San Francisco. Inside Out feels so emotionally honest, and it carries with it a strong message about feelings. Inside Out says that every person needs all of their emotions to be whole, and that it's ok — even necessary — to feel "negative" things sometimes.

Perhaps it's corny, but that message resonated with me. It's rare to find media that's genuinely touching without being cloying. Yes, Inside Out is cute — but not distractingly so. Its laughs and tears are earned, in every frame.