“Inside Out” opens Friday at Point, Palace, Star Cinema and Sundance Cinemas. PG, 1:34, four stars out of four.
And that’s why Pixar’s Pixar.
While there hasn’t been a Pixar movie I haven’t liked in the past few years ( okay, “Cars 2”), the animation studio once responsible for “Ratatouille” and “WALL-E” hasn’t put out anything essential in a while, anything that another animation studio like Dreamworks couldn’t have done.
That changes with the wonderful and ambitious “Inside Out.” It does exactly what we’ve come to expect from a great Pixar movie, which is to show us things we’ve never even dreamed of before — a balloon-powered house, a monster-scaring factory, a rat chef — and connect them so deeply to the human experience that they feel familiar somehow. It’s one of their very best.
Pete Docter’s high-concept premise could have been easily botched. “Inside Out” takes us inside the mind of 11-year-old Riley Anderson (Kaitlyn Dias), a normal Minnesota kids who likes hockey, her parents, her friends, and other kid stuff. At the controls of her brain is the indefatigable Joy (Amy Poehler), with occasional help from Disgust (Mindy Kaling), Anger (Lewis Black), Fear (Bill Hader) and Sadness (Phyllis Smith). (Yes, the voice casting is perfect, especially Poehler as the chipper Joy.)
Riley being a basically happy kid, Joy usually runs the show, and each of Riley’s memories arrive in the form of a color-coded orb that matches each of her emotions. Joy’s color is gold, and Riley’s memory banks are full of a lot of gold.
But that changes when Riley’s father gets a job in San Francisco and the family has to leave Minnesota. (That is the powerful, underlying message of this film: Never leave the Midwest.) With the stress of a new home, new school and no friends, not to mention encroaching adolescence, Joy has a harder and harder time keeping her colleagues (especially Sadness) away from the controls. When Joy and Sadness get sucked into the far reaches of Riley’s brain, they have to trek their way back to Mission Control to bring a little happiness back into her life.
What I love about “Inside Out” is that the stakes couldn’t be smaller (Joy’s quest is basically to snap Riley out of her funk) but feel so weighty and essential. For a film that’s so ultimately (and literally) internal, “Inside Out” fills the screen with fun and wonder, devising the clever and beautiful architecture of the brain, from the theme park of Imagination Land to the trippy Abstract Thinking zone. Great little jokes abound, like the explanation for why an annoying commercial jingle will pop into your head for no reason, or whatever happened to your old imaginary friend. I sort of wish “Inside Out” hadn’t zipped so quickly through its cranial wonders, but perhaps part of the charm of the film is that it doesn’t linger on its great ideas.
Because ultimately, “Inside Out” uses those ideas in service to a story with surprising emotional depth, as Joy learns that constant happiness is an impossibility, and being in touch with your other emotions (including, yes, Sadness) is key to having a rich and fully-lived life. That’s not a message you expect to hear at the multiplex in the summertime, where movies are engineered to be palaces of diversion where you can escape your real life. That Pixar can provide all the 3D bells and whistles and still reach straight into the heart of our own complex emotions and experiences — as a parent, just try not to imprint your own kids’ memories onto that of Riley’s — is a testament to just how very, very special “Inside Out” is.
In fact, while I’m not a fan of sequels in general, it would be lovely to revisit Riley’s noggin every nine years or so, “Before Sunrise” style, to see how Joy and the team handle college, adulthood, parenthood and the other stages of life. In a summer full of superheroes and dinosaurs, “Inside Out” shows that living an ordinary life is the greatest adventure of all.
Note: It seems almost tradition with Pixar that the better the feature film, the worse the short before it is, and vice versa. “Inside Out” must truly be one of the best films of the year, because the opening short “Lava” is a true clunker. Not only does the slow-moving and foggy film about volcanoes in love seem to derive its inspiration entirely from a “love/lava” pun, but the volcanoes are completely age-inappropriate, with the male volcano looking like a craggy Ed Asner and the female volcano a beautiful, young slim Olivia Munn type. It’s sad when Hollywood’s bias against older actresses extends to magma.