Past the Popcorn: Pixar Gets Back in the Groove with Inside Out

by Jeff Walls

Throughout the entire decade of the 2000s, animation powerhouse Pixar was the king of original cinematic experiences.  2001’s Monsters Inc. was followed by Finding Nemo which was followed by The Incredibles, et cetera, et cetera.  All the way through the release of Up in 2009, Pixar was creating high-quality and original new movies seemingly every year.  In the current decade, however, Pixar has fallen victim to sequelitis, with 2012’s Brave being their only non-sequel release in the past five years.  That changes in 2015, however, as the studio that a desk lamp built plans to release not just one, but two original films.  The first is this summer’s comedy Inside Out.

After years of playing with our emotions figuratively through their great storytelling, Pixar will now be literally messing around with our emotions.  The majority of Inside Out takes place inside the head of a young girl named Riley where we meet the emotions who control the majority of her actions: Joy, Sadness, Fear, Anger, and Disgust.  Joy is certainly the dominant personality and the result is that young Riley has had a mostly happy life up to this point.  Things begin to go awry, however, when her family ups and moves across the country from Minnesota to San Francisco.

inside-out-insetSadness now feels compelled to touch all of Riley’s joyful memories and turn them sad.  When Joy tries to prevent her from doing this, both Joy and Sadness find themselves lost in Riley’s long-term memory and unable to get back to the control center.  This leaves poor Riley without the ability to feel either joy or sadness, and instead her personality is left in control of Anger, Fear, and Disgust.  To keep Riley from forgetting who she is, Joy and Sadness must work their way through the labyrinth that is Riley’s mind, a mission that turns out to be easier said than done.

The concept of the movie is ingenious.  The Pixar writers find some clever ways to present the human mind in a cinematic way, such as making a person’s train of thought an actual train and having their dreams created by a Hollywood-like studio system.  The movie is loaded with many subtle and not-so-subtle in-jokes, such as the fact that opinions and facts are represented as similar looking Mahjong tiles which we are told can be easily mixed up.

The emotions themselves are nicely designed to visually represent what they are: Joy is modeled after a star, Sadness after a teardrop, Fear a frayed nerve, etc. The voice actors also do a good job of vocally representing their emotions.  Comedian Lewis Black was born to play anger.  Sure, reducing the human mind to five basic emotions may seem simplistic, but any more would have crowded the story too much.

While all of the characters are interesting, the movie does seem to lack that one standout supporting character that usually provides an animated movie with its most comic relief.  Characters like Baymax in Big Hero 6, for example, or Dug the dog in Up, Dory in Finding Nemo, or Olaf in Frozen.  Riley’s imaginary friend Bing Bong seems to be the character the filmmakers are trying to have play that role, but he is just not that interesting or funny.

With the exception of a few moments inside the heads of Riley’s parents, the only character’s mind we visit throughout the movie is Riley.  But some of the movie’s funniest moments come in the film’s end credits when we are granted a peek into some of the minor characters’ heads.  It would have been nice if the filmmakers could have figured out a way to sprinkle these moments throughout the whole movie without interfering with the flow of the story.

Inside Out is very entertaining and features the kind of high-quality animation we have come to expect from Pixar, but it doesn’t quite live up to the reputation of the studio’s best work.  Pixar’s best work is some of the best movies ever made, though, so that would probably be too high of an expectation.

Inside Out opens today at the AMC Southcenter 16 and the AMC Kent Station 14. Won’t it be nice when Des Moines has its own theater again? Eat local before you go!

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