Let’s begin with the glorious anthropomorphizing of said emotions. Joy (Amy Poehler) is a sunshine-yellow pixie of enthusiasm who presides over the “control room” of Riley’s mind as a benevolent dictator, trying to keep the less-upbeat of her colleagues off the controls. Sadness (Phyllis Smith, who played Phyllis on The Office) is blue and blobby, unsure of her role and seemingly destined to ruin everything she touches. Fear (Bill Hader) is a purply, perpetually jangled nerve-ending, and Disgust (Mindy Kaling) is a sickly green guru of sarcastic judgmentalism. Squat, blocky Anger is—as if you hadn’t already guessed—fire-engine red and voiced by Lewis Black.
When the story begins, Riley is an 11-year-old coasting through life with Joy firmly at the steering wheel. She has two loving parents (Diane Lane, Kyle MacLachlan) and a perfect Minnesota childhood made up of equal parts friendship and ice hockey. But calamity strikes, as it so often does, in the humblest of ways. Her dad gets a job at a tech startup and he moves the family out to that bleak nowheresville known as the Bay Area. (One of better inside jokes that the Emeryville-based Pixar works into the movie is the portrayal of San Francisco as a kind of miserable anti-utopia, gray and foreboding.)
Indignities accumulate one upon another: The moving van containing all of Riley’s furniture and belongings is delayed, and delayed again, leaving her huddled on the bare floor of her new bedroom in a sleeping bag. Her normally cheery dad is rendered distant and irritable by the demands of his new job. An introductory presentation to her new classmates dissolves into a wave of tears. Even hockey tryouts are a source of frustration. Before long, Riley becomes sullen and closed-off, snapping at her parents and hanging out alone in her room.
But as its title suggests, the true drama (and comedy) of the film takes place behind the scenes, inside Riley’s head. I won’t belabor the complex mechanics of the movie, but each memory Riley accumulates is like a glass ball, colored the hue of the emotion associated with it—overwhelmingly Joy-ish yellow at the start. Some of these balls become “core memories,” which sustain the “islands” that make up Riley’s essential personality: friendship, family, hockey, etc.
As things begin to go awry in Riley’s external life, so too, they fall apart on the inside. Sadness keeps touching happy memories and turning them blue. And when Joy tries to get the situation back to normal, she winds up inadvertently exiled to long-term memory with Sadness in tow. Much of the “action” of the plot involves their efforts to get back to the control room, traversing such terrain as Imagination Land, Abstract Thought, the Dream Production studio (featuring such classics as “I Can Fly” and “Something is Chasing Me”), and the Subconscious (which, we’re informed, is “where they take all the troublemakers”). There are innumerable clever gags along the way, including explanations of why TV jingles get stuck in our heads and how facts and opinions become jumbled together. Most important, Joy and Sadness meet Bing Bong, Riley’s long-forgotten imaginary friend, who is voiced wonderfully by Richard Kind and offers many of the film’s most wistful, Toy Story-like moments.