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With: Amy Poehler, Phyllis Smith, Richard Kind, Bill Hader, Lewis Black, Mindy Kaling, Kaitlyn Dias, Diane Lane, Kyle MacLachlan
Written by: Meg LeFauve, Josh Cooley, Pete Docter, based on a story by Pete Docter, Ronaldo Del Carmen
Directed by: Ronaldo Del Carmen (co-director), Pete Docter
MPAA Rating: PG for mild thematic elements and some action
Running Time: 94
Date: 06/18/2015

Inside Out (2015)

4 Stars (out of 4)


By Jeffrey M. Anderson

In 1995, Pixar made history with the first, full-length animated feature, Toy Story (1995). This breakthrough technical achievement, which was also funny and touching, set a high bar for the studio. They were capable of greatness. In the years since, the studio has come close, with the sequels Toy Story 2 (1999) and Toy Story 3 (2010), which dealt with the pain of growing up and leaving childish things behind. It came close with The Incredibles (2004), a superhero movie about more than just superheroes. It came close with WALL-E (2008), a movie with an ingenious first half that was married with a less ingenious second half. And then director Pete Docter came perhaps closest of all with Up (2009), a beautiful story of love and longing, that, likewise, had a second half that didn't quite match the majesty of the first.

Now Docter has returned, and he has entirely fulfilled the studio's potential with Inside Out. This is a truly great film, a work of beauty and profundity whose computer-generated pixels come closer to human truth that most other live-action movies do. It's the best thing Pixar has ever produced, and I don't expect that any other movie in 2015 will be better.

Unlike any of the previous Pixar movies, Inside Out begins with an almost entirely imaginary landscape: the brain of an 11 year-old girl. Docter and his team dream up a whole system of operations. In the beginning, there is only Joy (voiced by Amy Poehler), whose job is to push a single button and create happiness in her person, the baby Riley Anderson. Then, enter Sadness (voiced by Phyllis Smith), who pushes the button and makes Riley cry.

As Riley grows (and is voiced by Kaitlyn Dias), she forms core memories, and learns about the things she likes. There are beautiful islands inside her head that represent things like family, friends, hockey, and being silly. Three more emotions join in: Anger (voiced by Lewis Black), Fear (voiced by Bill Hader), and Disgust (voiced by Mindy Kaling). The control panel grows larger, and the emotions have more daily duties, including the monitoring of Riley's dreams.

Joy is generally in charge of things, and she makes it her mission in life to see that Riley is happy. But lately, Sadness has been inexplicably drawn to touching the core memories — which resemble large, colored marbles — and turning them blue (she herself doesn't understand what's happening). Joy tries to keep Sadness away, and in one chaotic scuffle, both Joy and Sadness and the core memories are sucked through a tube and deposited on the other side of Riley's brain. They must complete a precarious journey back to the control center without harming the core memories. Helping them is Bing Bong (voiced by Richard Kind), Riley's old imaginary friend who still pokes around in the back of her mind, waiting to play again.

Coinciding with all this, in real life, Riley's family — dad voiced by Kyle MacLachlan and mom voiced by Diane Lane — packs up from her rural hometown in Minnesota (where Docter himself was born) and moves to San Francisco. Lacking access to either Joy or Sadness, as well as to her core memories, Riley simply shuts down, becoming sullen and depressed. Fear, Anger, and Disgust take the controls and frantically try to put things back to normal, but only push it further.

The first thing to notice is this movie's incredible design, filled with the kind of imagination rarely seen in movies. It's perhaps already enough that the wide-open countryside of Minnesota contrasts with the gray San Francisco landscape (though Bay Area residents will gape, slack-jawed at the huge apartment the family moves into, dead rat and all). But these two landscapes are also contrasted with the full-blown, color-blast of the mindscape. It's interesting that Docter chose to show Riley's memories as multicolored orbs, recalling the many colored balloons he used in Up. Cynics will notice that the orbs operate a little like iPhones, with touchscreens allowing viewers to rewind memories to watch again. Nonetheless, the mindscape has a complete, fully-formed set of rules, where no plot holes dare to tread.

Of course, I would love to start listing examples, but that would ruin the movie's many surprises, although I will mention what gave me the biggest laugh: a catchy, annoying gum commercial jingle that the memory workers sometimes like to send up to Riley's brain for no reason whatsoever. Regardless, this is a very tightly constructed movie, making a mockery of the many, shambling 2-hour-plus summer blockbusters cluttering up multiplexes lately.

So, yes, like almost all the other Pixar movies, Inside Out has a wonderful, remarkable setup. But unlike the others, it not only lives up to its setup, but it also transcends it. Without going into too much detail, this film realizes that, while "being happy" is a reasonable hope for all of us, and the ultimate goal of just about every other Hollywood movie ever made, it's not real. But also simply "being sad" is equally unrealistic. In short, the movie posits that, as we reach 11 and begin the painful process of growing up, these emotions are frequently mixed together. Happy memories are mixed with sadness because those things are gone. Loss becomes part of love, and makes life more precious.

It must be said that, since Joy is the central character, and the one who takes the most significant journey, Amy Poehler's incredible voice performance is a major key to the entire thing. As nice as it sounds to be happy all the time, consider that if you knew someone like that, you would quickly grow to despise them. (This human trait could explain why we regularly and invariably bestow awards on serious movies while ignoring funny movies.) I'm not particularly a huge fan of Poehler's, but what she does here, finding the center of Joy, but also tangling with a full gamut of other emotions, is something that, I think, deserves Oscar consideration. Until now, my favorite vocal performance in any Pixar movie was Ellen DeGeneres in Finding Nemo (2003), but now Poehler takes the lead.

I should mention that, those lucky enough to see Inside Out in the theater will also be graced with a new short film, Lava, a beautiful love story about a heartbroken, but hopeful, volcano.

I think that, in my years as a film critic, I have moved away, slightly, from auteurism, and have gravitated toward trying to find simple, clearly expressed human truths, though there is certainly some connection between the two (the auteur theory is mainly about finding individual personalities, a human connection, between movies). This is harder to do than it sounds, and it's much easier to praise movies about social injustices and big issues. We put a little bit of ourselves on the line if we decide to praise an emotional movie, as if we're admitting that we have emotions ourselves. Well, we do. Everyone does. I applaud Inside Out for having the courage and complete conviction to unabashedly explore them, finding joy, sadness, anger, fear, disgust, and more, as well as realizing that they're all in this together.

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