“Inside Out” and Pixar’s Decisive Comeback

Amy Poehler is the best.

At this point, we all know about Pixar’s struggles in recent years so why don’t we just cut to the chase and emphatically declare Inside Out is a good sign our favorite animation studio isn’t out of steam or ideas.

Let’s not forget Pixar gave us a number of legitimately iconic movies, including the Toy Story franchise, Ratatouille, and Wall-E (and Finding Nemo, which was – and perhaps still is – the most popular film to show in junior high schools, along with October Sky and maybe Stand and Deliver).

Inside Out is reassuringly familiar in terms of its strengths – it’s the prototypical Pixar beauty: originality, voice acting, emotional appeal, humor, and visual effects.

Of those categories, people have probably overstated the emotional appeal the most. While I’m certainly comfortable admitting the movie theater got, um, mysteriously dusty a few times and caused my eyes to water, the girl sitting behind me was probably exaggerating a little bit when she proudly sniffed to her friends during the credits, “I cried, like literally, at least two times.”

There’s something to be said about the emotional disconnect between the characters and the audience (or me specifically, I suppose). After all, this is a movie that went Inception on us and asked, “What if feelings had feelings?”

Inside Out explores the mind of a prepubescent girl named Riley who moves from Minnesota to San Francisco. Within her mind are a number of psychological and neurological locations and characters that have obviously been adjusted for the kids in the audience, but made complex enough for most reasonable adults to appreciate; there’s a really cool scene involving abstract thinking, for example.

The processes of the locations and the actions of the characters impact Riley’s mental state and, in turn, influence her life in a variety of ways. For the most part, the relocation to San Francisco is negative as she feels homesick and starts to feel more complex emotions like melancholy when she thinks about her favorite Minnesota memories.

She cries on the first day of school while she’s introducing herself and when she tries out for a San Francisco hockey team and trips on the ice, she throws a temper tantrum and leaves the rink in a complicated haze of frustration and fury.

You get the idea.

All that angst is caused by a number of problems her mind’s characters run into, specifically the ones at Headquarters, where five feelings (Joy, Sadness, Anger, Fear, and Disgust) control her attitude/behavior and influence pretty much every other aspect of her mind’s processes. Riley is growing older, meaning that her feelings are mixing together and producing new sensations.

Unfortunately, the five main feelings – especially Joy – think something is wrong when they observe Riley’s memories going from pure, individual emotions to a mixture of, say, Joy and Sadness (hence, melancholy).

They attempt to fix it, with Joy going the most hardcore, and cause Riley to inadvertently enter a state of serious existential angst. Eventually she becomes so despondent, she decides to run away; Inside Out becomes a race against the clock at that point, with Joy and Sadness attempting to get back to Headquarters after a series of mishaps you can experience yourself by watching the goddamn movie already.

There are all these feelings and watching Riley go from an ideal kid’s life to a tumultuous one is certainly sad. But I realized after the movie I was never on the edge of my seat worrying about what was going to happen. It’s a Pixar movie after all, and movies as a whole industry have a tendency to avoid unexpected or sad endings.

It’s a general sensation I’ve been experiencing so it’s hard to blame Pixar for my own cynicism after years of watching movies and TV shows on an egregious basis. In fact, I can’t even take points off because I enjoyed Inside Out so much. While there wasn’t a palatable sense of tension through most of the film, I was too busy laughing my ass off to care until I thought really hard about it back home.

It’s really indisputable that one of the movie’s biggest strengths is the voice acting paired with the really amusing character quirks and animations, especially Sadness (Phyllis Smith, mostly known for her role as Phyllis from The Office) and Joy (Amy Poehler, mostly known for being my future cuddle buddy – what!?).

Poehler in particular is a marvel, channeling her Parks and Recreation character Leslie Knope’s bubbly personality and infectious optimism to the extreme. Pixar has made a lot of excellent casting choices but this might be the most appropriate one yet.

Also, I’m not sure if voice acting in cinema was ever fully appreciated until fairly recently, but I know Scarlett Johansson in Her was almost transcendent work that many people felt deserved serious awards consideration.

I’m going to make a bold statement here and say Poehler deserves the same. Roast me over a grill like you’re one of those weirdos from season five of The Walking Dead, if you must, but you can’t argue against the fact that she was one of the greatest aspects in a movie filled with great things.

But that’s enough flirting with Amy Poehler. Maybe.

Phyllis Smith was also really good as Sadness, and I wish I was a little kid again just so I could ask my parents to buy me a plush Sadness – so cute! Who knew sadness could be so funny?

The three other feelings have a much minor role, with Disgust (Mindy Kaling, star of The Mindy Project and Kelly Kapoor on The Office) probably having the least lines. Anger (comedian Lewis Black) and Fear (Bill Hader) are funny too, but the spotlight shines brightest on Joy and Sadness.

I also have to mention Riley’s dad was voiced by Kyle MacLachlan, who I love from all his David Lynch collaborations as well as his quirky role as Portland’s mayor on Portlandia.

Inside Out is one of the funniest movies you’re going to see all year. That’s a guarantee. Pixar was already very competent at making humor for both kids and adults, but this is a movie we can all relate to whether you’re a mom who sometimes wishes she ran away with a hot Brazilian pilot or an adolescent boy who freezes when a girl says hi.

Don’t worry about crying – you’ll be too busy laughing.

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