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Inside Out (2015)
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by Peter Sobczynski

"Emotion Pictures"
5 stars

Between the release of their debut feature film, "Toy Story," in 1995 and the emergence of "Toy Story 3" fifteen years later, Pixar Studios had a run of critical and commercial successes almost unprecedented in the annals of Hollywood history that also included such beloved works as "A Bug's Life" (1998), "Toy Story 2" (1999), "Monsters Inc" (2001), "Finding Nemo" (2003), "The Incredibles" (2004), "Ratatouille" (2007), "WALL*E" (2008) and "Up" (2009). These weren't just excellent by the standards of animated films by any means--in terms of ambition, scope and sheer entertainment value for viewers of all ages, they even dwarfed the accomplishments of most straightforward movies of the era. Their track record was so stellar that the one weak link in their output, "Cars" (2006), was more of a minor-league effort than anything else and if it had come from any other animation studio than Pixar, it probably would have be regarded as one of the better knock-offs to emerge in their wake. In the last few years, however, the studio that could seemingly do no wrong abruptly shifted artistic gears with a string of undeniable disappointments--"Brave" (2012) had an appealing central character and look but was a mess in the storytelling department while "Cars 2" (2011) and "Monsters University" (2013) were lazy and unfocused sequels that existed only to make millions of dollars off of the goodwill that people felt towards the originals--that continued to score at the box office but which left moviegoers despairing that the once-flawless filmmaking group had lost its touch for good.

Now Pixar has returned with their fifteenth feature, "Inside Out," and I am happy--maybe "relieved" is a better word--to inform you that they have evidently regained their magic touch and then some. Not only is it their best movie in years, it is one of their best period--take your two or three favorites of theirs (I would probably go with "The Incredibles," "Ratatouille" and "WALL*E" but your picks might differ) and this one deserves a place right alongside them. This is a return to what their films used to represent--a bold and original idea that has been beautifully executed thank to a clever screenplay, endearing characters, spot-on voice casting and equal amounts of humor, intelligence, emotion and visual style. This is the rare summer blockbuster-to-be that is more concerned with telling a good story that genuinely touches viewers than in creating millions of dollars in merchandizing opportunities and unless something comes out of nowhere in the next couple of months, my guess is that this one will stand as one of the true movie miracles of the year.

The conceit of the film is that we all have five basic emotions that live within our minds and help to govern all of our thoughts and feelings, inspire ideas and curate memories. In the case of Riley (), a perfectly normal and cheerful 11-year-old girl, her team is led by the eternally chipper and bright yellow Joy (Amy Poehler) and also includes blue Sadness (Phyllis Smith), bright red Anger (Lewis Black), green Disgust (Mindy Kaling) and purple Fear (Bill Hader). Joy is clearly the dominant force within Riley's mind and nearly all of the incoming memories that wind up being stored in her memories are tinged yellow to acknowledge her feelings at the time. Because she is still developing emotionally as well as physically, the others are still trying to figure out how to work together and in the case of Sadness, they are not exactly sure what it is supposed to do or why it is even there in the first place.

Things come to a head, so to speak, when Riley's parents (Kyle MacLachlan and Diane Lane) decide to uproot her from Minnesota--where all of her friends and her hockey team is--and move to San Francisco for her father's job. Whether it is the result of the move from her beloved home to a place with a crummy-looking house, their possessions in never-ending transit and broccoli pizza or the onset of adolescence, Riley's emotions start to respond in odd ways with Sadness inexplicably messing around with everything and leaving her fingerprints all over once-happy memories. While trying to protect Riley's core memories from Sadness, she and Sadness are accidentally ejected to the farthest reaches of Riley's mind and must embark on a long journey through such areas as the Subconscious and Imagination Land in order to get back to headquarters. While this is going on, Fear, Anger and Disgust are left in charge of Riley and their spectacularly ill-advised ideas lead to the collapse of many of her most cherished childhood memories and inspire her to make a plan to run away back to Minnesota.

As premises go, "Inside Out" is one of those ideas that is so conceptually brilliant--at once dazzlingly complex and disarmingly direct--that you wonder why it is that no one ever hit upon it before. (Okay, technically one could argue that the long-forgotten Fox sitcom "Herman's Head" utilized some of the same concepts but I assure you that there is no comparison between the two otherwise.) The reason why, of course, is that even though it seems incredibly simple and easy to grasp on the surface, trying to bring a story like this to life is fraught with any number of complications. How does one present an abstract concept like an emotion into visual terms? How do you depict the inner workings of the mind of an 11-year-old girl--anything is possible but where does one go from there? How do you take a story idea that might have been easily spun out into a Charlie Kaufman-esque head-spinner and make it accessible to a younger audience without losing any of the complexities that inspired the story in the first place. Faced with such challenges, one can easily imagine that many filmmakers might have just thrown in the towel at a certain point and moved on to something a little simpler.

Happily, leading Pixar light Pete Doctor, who was the primary force behind "Monsters Inc." and "Up!" and who directed (along with Ronaldo Del Carmen) and co-wrote this one, not only did not shy away from the challenge but embraced it in ways that are alternately hilarious, thrilling and surprisingly moving. I don't really want to go into too much detail about what occurs because one of the great things about the film is how it manages to constantly surprise and dazzle viewers while never once straying from the plot or the point in order to do so. What is especially impressive is the way that it takes a subject that is oftentimes fraught with peril under the best of circumstances--the emotional development of children--and finds a way of illustrating it in an easy-to-understand manner that nevertheless refuses to talk down to them or sugarcoat the subject. For kids who are having trouble understanding their feelings or understanding why there has to be something like sadness in the first place, this film would make for a wonderful teaching object and my guess is that the lessons that it imparts will hit home in a more significant manner than any lecture or textbook. Long after the tie-in T-shirts have faded and the stuffed animals have been relegated to a closet, my guess is that kids who see this film will continue to carry around the lessons they learned from it and when they have kids themselves, they will use it to pass those same lessons on to their offspring.

However, I don't want to make "Inside Out" seem exclusively like a form of homework because while all of these subtextual points are being made, the film is also busy providing the most pure pleasure that I can recall in a family-friendly film since "The Muppets" and that one had decades of good will working in its favor. Visually, the film is a stunner--there is not one boring or uninteresting image that I can recall and the various areas of Riley's mind are depicted in such fascinating ways that I found myself wishing for an epic-length version that would allow viewers to explore some of these areas in greater detail. The voice casting--always one of Pixar's strengths in the way that they tend to cast based on who is best for the role rather than whose name will sell more tickets (this is the studio that cast author Sarah Vowell as one of the voices in "The Incredibles")--has never been better than it is here. As an even perkier and sprightlier variation of her beloved Leslie Knope character from "Parks & Recreation," Amy Poehler is an utter delight throughout as Joy, especially in the later scenes when it finally begins to dawn on her that one cannot possibly go through life feeling nothing but happiness, and Phyllis Smith (from "The Office") is equally perfect as the eternally moping yang to Joy's yin. The other roles are well-cast but I would like to take this moment to suggest that whomever it was that came up with the idea of having Anger voiced by the relentlessly choleric Anger deserves all of the medals for that bit of inspiration.

Coming out of "Inside Out," I found myself thinking, oddly enough, of the only other major studio film of the season thus far to come close to it in terms of quality, the equally amazing "Mad Max: Fury Road." Although wildly different in most regards, there are key ways in which they are strikingly similar. Both films are smarter and more ambitious than they necessarily had to be but no one will come away griping that it was too complicated or confusing for them to understand. Both films dare to defy conventional blockbuster wisdom by putting female voices at the center of their narratives but, with the exception of those men's movement idiots, I can't imagine anyone not liking it because of the gender dynamics. More importantly, both films are among the very few mega-movies that I can think of where I came out of the screening cheerfully willing to pay money to experience them for a second time.

WILDLY SELF-INDULGENT AUTHOR'S NOTE: One of my dearest friends has an adorable daughter whose attendance at a preview of "Inside Out" was, save for an excursion to that "Winnie the Pooh" film a few years ago, her first moviegoing experience. I would just like to take this opportunity to welcome Delia into the world of moviegoing, to complement her on her exquisite taste for make this film her initial multiplex foray and to sadly inform her that it is pretty much all downhill from here

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originally posted: 06/19/15 00:06:51
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OFFICIAL SELECTION: 2015 Cannes Film Festival For more in the 2015 Cannes Film Festival series, click here.
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OFFICIAL SELECTION: 2015 Los Angeles Film Festival For more in the 2015 Los Angeles Film Festival series, click here.

User Comments

2/19/16 Dr. Lao As good as a movie version of "Herman's Head" could have been 4 stars
11/26/15 David H. Charming and very moving. 5 stars
10/05/15 G. Beautiful 5 stars
7/26/15 Elizabeth Too sentimental and "Joy" is so annoying. 2 stars
7/06/15 KingNeutron Not a dry eye in the theater. Richard Kind and Lewis Black NAILED IT 4 stars
6/25/15 Bob Dog My least favorite non-sequel Pixar movie - severely overrated! 1 stars
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  19-Jun-2015 (PG)
  DVD: 10-Nov-2015


  DVD: 10-Nov-2015

Directed by
  Pete Docter

Written by
  Michael Arndt

  Amy Poehler
  Mindy Kaling
  Bill Hader
  John Ratzenberger
  Phyllis Smith
  Lewis Black

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