It was easy to view The Walt Disney Company's 2006 acquisition of Pixar Animation Studios with a deeply cynical eye. Pixar's technical innovations (as seen in early features Toy Story and A Bug's Life) brought animation into the digital age, but it was the company's collaborative culture and focus on story and character that immediately set it apart. By comparison, the animated films made by Disney in that era seemed designed for marketing tie-ins and theme-park consumption. The first two Pixar films begun after the Disney acquisition, 2011's Cars 2 and 2012's Brave (it takes four to seven years to develop and produce a Pixar film), didn't rank with Pixar's best and left some observers wondering if the studio's greatest work was behind it.
Those concerns are brushed aside by Inside Out, an instant classic among animated films and a new creative peak for Pixar. The film is about feelings: much of the action takes place inside the mind of an 11-year-old girl named Riley as characters named Joy, Sadness, Anger, Fear and Disgust man the controls in the Headquarters of her fragile pre-adolescent psyche. It's a cliche that the best animated movies work on multiple levels, speaking to kids and adults simultaneously. Inside Out fulfills that promise, but it also transcends age divisions with a story that explores what it means to be human.
The external, "real world" story is simple. Riley (Kaitlyn Dias) must contend with change and loss after her Mom (Diane Lane) and Dad (Kyle MacLachlan) uproot the family's cozy life in Minnesota and move to San Francisco. It's an understandably busy time for those working inside Riley's mind, where Joy has always been in charge of Riley's sunny disposition. When Joy (Amy Poehler) and Sadness (Phyllis Smith) are accidentally transported to the far reaches of Riley's mind, they must find a way home to Headquarters before it's too late. Anger (Lewis Black), Fear (Bill Hader) and Disgust (Mindy Kaling) have no clue how to steer a human being.
That journey is where Inside Out finds its way. To escape the endless halls of long-term memory, Joy and Sadness make their way through the shadowy world of the Subconscious, the full-functioning movie studio of Dream Productions, the still-under-construction Abstract Thought and various additional marvels of digital animation. In the hands of director and co-writer Pete Docter (who also was responsible for Pixar's other masterwork, 2009's Up), the neighborhoods of Riley's mind are wildly imagined and beautifully realized. What happens in Abstract Thought alone is worth the price of a movie ticket.
Also not to be missed are Inside Out's closing credits, where the mind control-centers of many other characters — human or not — are put on display. (Why are cats so crazy? The answer finally is revealed.) You'll also find that the film is dedicated to "our kids," along with a simple plea that they "never grow up." Inside Out is told from a preteen's perspective, but it's the parents who give the film a very large dose of soul.