Rated PG for mild thematic elements and some action.
Running time: 94 minutes.
Three and a half stars out of four.
Here’s the main difference between me and my 5-year-old son. I mean, clearly, there are many, including the fact that someday soon he’ll be able to reach items on the high shelves in the kitchen without a step ladder. But this latest one lies in the way we each reacted to “Inside Out,” the new animated epic from Pixar, which takes place mainly within the mind of an 11-year-old girl.
Nicolas’ favorite part was when the girl’s sense of Fear (voiced by Bill Hader) runs around screaming with his butt ablaze, courtesy of a blast of fire from her Anger (Lewis Black). He also liked when Joy (Amy Poehler) was playfully talking to herself. “Joy is funny,” the budding film critic added. My favorite part was … everything else. The ambition. The intelligence. The complexity. The performances. The poignancy. Director and co-writer Pete Docter’s film is as beautiful as it is profound, lively as it is meaningful.
This is a movie that dares to explore existential crises, in the middle of the summer, in an animated movie that’s aimed at the whole family. And damned if it doesn’t pull it off. Like the best Pixar movies — “Up,” “The Incredibles” and my personal favorite, “WALL-E” — it functions quite powerfully on multiple levels at once. And similar to “Ratatouille,” in a lot of ways “Inside Out” isn’t really for kids primarily, even though the figure at its center, Riley (voiced by Kaitlyn Dias), is on the brink of adolescence, with all the recognizable angst that accompanies this shift.
Children will certainly respond to the movie’s spry energy, vibrant colors and clever humor. The script from Docter, Meg LeFauve and Josh Cooley is one of the more substantive ones yet in a Pixar film — and don’t forget, Docter previously directed and co-wrote “Monsters Inc.” and “Up” — but it’s also very, very funny, often in a slapsticky way. Er go, the butt on fire.
A little bit on the premise, in case this all sounds a tad confusing and abstract. Riley has just moved from Minneapolis to San Francisco with her parents (Diane Lane and Kyle MacLachlan). This would be a difficult transition to make at any time in your childhood, but especially now. Eleven is such an awkward age — such a jumble of extreme emotions — which “Inside Out” keenly understands and demonstrates by going inside her brain to show us what she’s thinking or feeling at any particular moment. Besides Joy, Anger and Fear, there’s Disgust (Mindy Kaling) and Sadness (Phyllis Smith).
When Riley was a little girl, her experiences and memories were all so clear-cut, they were color-coded. The happy ones, like scoring her first hockey goal, remain in the infrastructure of her brain as orbs that glow a bright yellow; the unpleasant ones, like being forced to eat broccoli as an infant, radiate a dark green. And the feelings themselves were reliable in their consistency. Joy always has been perky and resilient and glass-half-full (and Poehler does nimble voice work in playing a character that’s the pixellated manifestation of her irresistible demeanor).
But lately, the blue and bespectacled Sadness has come to the fore, between the move and all the disconcerting changes occurring both around her and inside her. Reminiscent of Eeyore in the “Winnie the Pooh” realm, Sadness is dryly hilarious — so pathetic and so sweet — and so often, the voice of reason. She’s the one who’s willing to speak the raw truth in an uncomfortable situation. And Smith, with her vulnerable and beautifully nuanced performance, ends up being the movie’s unexpected MVP.
From here, “Inside Out” follows how Riley — and the many sides of her — adapt, or don’t. Her journey features many inspired, light moments, from the physical manifestation of a brain freeze while you’re enjoying a cold treat to an annoying TV jingle that gets stuck in your head. But it has plenty of dramatic ones, too, including the relationship Riley’s emotions have with her long-lost imaginary friend, Bing Bong, voiced heartbreakingly by Richard Kind. (Seriously, “Inside Out” rivals “Toy Story 3” for the kind of ugly crying it’ll provoke in you.)
It may meander a tad in the literal labyrinth of Riley’s mind as these figures struggle to work together to help her restore her shattered sense of self. But mostly, “Inside Out” remains sharp with some really sophisticated notions about the nature of memories — which ones we hold onto, where they sit in the brain, how long we keep them, how they shape our personalities and even how they help us forge relationships. It might sound dull or even didactic, but this being a Pixar film, “Inside Out” brings these concepts brilliantly to life.
If my son can begin to grasp the idea that happiness and sadness can co-exist within the same moment — but also cackle so hard at a bit of physical comedy that his face turns red and the veins pop out on his neck — then we’re onto something truly memorable here.