Inside Out (Walt Disney Studios Motion Pictures, PG)

Inside-Out 75Inside Out is an excellent film, and easily Pixar’s best since Toy Story 3.





Inside-Out 500

Let’s assess this situation here: Inside Out is the new film from Pixar Animation Studios, who were for 15 years or so widely celebrated, but have been on their way out lately; two of their three most recent films, 2011’s Cars 2 and 2013’s Monsters University, are easily the two worst the studio has ever made (though 2012’s Brave wasn’t bad), and as a studio they aren’t as universally beloved and bulletproof as they once seemed to be. The marketing campaign for Inside Out doesn’t seem promising—it’s all cheap-looking faerie things and bad bright colors and has the reek of 90s era DreamWorks animation. Advertisements make clear the premise, that the film takes place inside of a human’s head, and the main characters of the film are personifications of that character’s emotions (joy, fear, sadness, anger), but these same advertisements rely on tired gender stereotypes, and, in one scene that seems to be in even the shortest clips from the film, we have a sub-romantic comedy-level scene where a man isn’t listening while his wife is talking to him. Inspired, it is not.

The point is, Inside Out doesn’t look like it’s going to break Pixar’s mild slump, at least based on the ad campaign.

I am pleased to report that the ad campaign is misleadingly bad, though; Inside Out is an excellent film, and easily Pixar’s best since Toy Story 3. It’s true that it is probably the most aesthetically ugly of Pixar’s films, and that ubiquitous “man not listening to his wife” scene is presented in the context of the movie like it’s going to be a showstopper (it isn’t), but apart from those two problems the film gets virtually every other thing right.

Despite what those commercials might lead you to believe, the vast majority of the film takes place inside of 11-year old Riley Henderson’s head, which situation is roiled as her family is uprooted and moves from Minnesota to San Francisco. And while this all happens inside of Riley (voiced by Kaitlyn Dias), the main character of the film isn’t Riley but Joy (voiced by Amy Poehler, who’s excellent here), who, as her name implies, is in charge of Riley’s happiness. She has to fight for space at the control panel with her colleagues, though, who include Fear (voiced by Bill Hader), Disgust (voiced by Mindy Kaling), Sadness (voiced by St. Louis’ own Phyllis Smith, who you probably know as Phyllis from the American version of The Office), and Anger (voiced by Lewis Black). Though Joy is used to being in control of Riley’s life, the move prompts her to take something of a backseat, and she eventually gets lost outside of the control center while Riley goes through the beginnings of teenaged angst.

Though the colors and character design are for the most part ugly, the visualization of the inner workings of emotions is really well done here; it’s a clear and easy to follow system of color-coded good memories and bad memories (which look more or less like marbles), projectors, archives, etc. Some of the non-emotion-related characters are quite memorable as well, such as workers who drudge up needed distant memories, or Riley’s ex-imaginary friend Bing Bong (voiced by Richard Kind).

The real star of the show, though, is Sadness; I’d go so far as to say Sadness is the best new character in a Pixar film since maybe Dory in Finding Nemo. The character is appropriately Debbie Downer-ish (who I feel free to evoke, given the presence of multiple Saturday Night Live alumna in the voice cast), but also inherently likable, thanks in large part to Smith’s excellent work. The script, by director Pete Docter (whose last film was Up, which ought to tell you what league this guy is in) and three other co-screenwriters, also does an excellent job of making Sadness a needed and valuable member of the emotional team; her contributions are just as important as, say, Joy’s. Really, you could make this case for any of the characters, but for the most part Inside Out is Joy and Sadness’ show. You know, like how life is.

Though Cars 2 and Monsters University were disappointing, neither were so bad for me or much of anyone else to write off Pixar as a creative entity. Inside Out is good enough that you’ll forget Pixar’s ever done anything that wasn’t absolutely excellent.

And as a parting note, as usual for a Pixar film, Inside Out is preceded by a short animated film, in this case called “Lava.” “Lava”’s entire runtime has a volcano singing a song, and on the whole the short was met with a lot of derisive laughter at the promotional screening I attended. While the premise and song may be silly, “Lava” features some really breathtakingly beautiful animation—which only serves to make Inside Out look worse—and I think it’s missing the point to laugh at the harmless song when the animation is this good. | Pete Timmermann

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