Silver Screen: Inside Out ****1/2
In between sequels to Pixar’s more marketable, merchandise-friendly (and almost uniformly delightful) movie franchises— Toy Story, Cars, Monsters Inc.— the pioneering animation studio lets its artists indulge some creatively daring impulses: A movie about a French foodie with a title half the audience can’t pronounce, robot love in an apocalyptic wasteland, and the junior-varsity version of Michael Haneke’s Amour set in a floating house.
Pixar’s latest, Inside Out, might not be their most audacious effort, but it’s certainly their most high-concept movie so far. Preteen girl Riley (voiced by Kaitlyn Dias) undergoes a typical but no-less painful right of passage when her parents move from a bucolic Minnesota town to cramped, unfamiliar digs in downtown San Francisco. The real action, though, takes place inside Riley’s mind as a quintet of personified emotions struggle to keep her happy and healthy.
Riley’s emotions are led by Joy (Amy Poehler), who remains plucky and assertive in the face of these new crises. Joy is in charge of a complex system that conceptualizes Riley’s brain as an elaborate industrial system complete with specialized machinery, a hilariously cranky staff of service workers, and its own transportation system (and nifty, literal train of thought). Joy’s job is to organize and maintain Riley’s store of memories that form the basis of her personality.
Since the move, the dolorous Sadness (Phyllis Smith) is having an increased effect on Riley’s mental mechanics. Her bumbling sends Riley into a behavioral slump and begins to taint her most treasured memories with melancholy. In Joy’s desperate effort to reset the machinery, she and Sadness are accidentally ejected from the control room. They must find a way back by wandering through the deepest recess of Riley’s mind while, meanwhile, back at headquarters, the system is being mismanaged by the other emotions: Anger (Lewis Black), Disgust (Mindy Kaling), and Fear (Bill Hader).
The emotions learn how to operate intricate machinery from a series of dense technical manuals. The audience, however, needs no such guide. An opening monologue from Joy concisely explains the premise, and from there codirectors and writers Pete Docter and Ronaldo Del Carmen let the concept unfold in an impressively intuitive, logical way. The ephemeral notions are made manifest into tangible objects and clearly delineated physical spaces so the action is easy to follow. This might be the filmmakers’ greatest achievement: To render such a heady concept so easily accessible.
All this focus on industrial systems as a metaphor for cerebral functioning does get plenty... well, cerebral, but it’s also sometimes rendered with visuals more workmanlike than artistic. Inside Out’s lone shortcoming is its animation, which is handsome but stylistically indistinct. Some choices are outright strange, like making Joy literally bubbly so that’s she’s almost fuzzy-looking. Mostly, though, the animation just lacks verve and dynamism; you can certainly save yourself a few bucks by skipping out on the superfluous 3D.
Docter and Del Carmen might not entirely use their trippy concept the way, say, Tex Avery could turn even simple ideas into gleeful phantasmagoria, but they hit some surrealistic high notes. A scene in which the characters become increasingly abstracted plays like Bugs Bunny meets Picasso, and Riley’s sweet, doomed imaginary friend Bing Bong (Richard Kind) is beguilingly bizarre: a cat-dolphin-elephant hybrid made of cotton candy, sporting threadbare hobo attire.
Inside Out is full of big ideas (and a lot of terrific little ones), and also big emotions. It’s a thoughtful tearjerker about the erosion of innocence and the practical necessity of sadness. But it’s not mopey, didactic, or too in love with its own cleverness. Inside Out is a vivid delight, consistently hilarious thanks to impeccable casting. You can somehow hear Kaling rolling her eyes as Disgust, and Black is so suited to Anger it would almost lapse into cliché if it didn’t work so perfectly. Poehler is spot on, and the great character actor Kind is the most endearing cartoon sidekick since Finding Nemo’s Dory.
Like all the best Pixar work, Inside Out isn’t so much a kids’ movie as a true all-ages film that works so well on so many levels that it’s tough to imagine what hard-hearted, small-minded grump it isn’t suited for.
Follow Bryan Miller on Twitter@bmillercomedy.