Friday, June 19, 2015

An Extraordinary Thing: Inside Out

This review originally appeared on

It's basically a given that if the movie comes from Pixar, I'm going to be crying at some point. Maybe within the first 10 minutes (Up); or closer to the end (Toy Story 3); or even after it's over (Cars 2, because I just realized I'd lost 90 minutes of my life I'd never get back). Pixar has emotional storytelling down to such a science that Inside Out can be read as a movie about what it's like to experience a Pixar movie: how memories can have a tremendous effect on how you react to life events — and art; how happiness can relate so closely to sadness that they're often inseparable; and how one of the best feelings in the world can be laughing while there are still sad tears on your cheeks.

Inside Out centers on 11-year-old Riley, who has moved from Minnesota to San Francisco with her parents so her father can start a new job. Leaving the home she loves, her friends, her school, her favorite sport, hockey — and facing a new city, a run-down house, (that probably cost her parents their entire savings), a school full of strangers, and pizza covered in BROCCOLI (the food she hates above all others), is tough for Riley. But she does the best she can to keep her emotions in check... at first.

Riley's Emotions are literal characters that live in her head, or, headquarters, if you will. They make sure Riley's emotional life is steady, and filled with appropriate moments of Anger, Disgust, Fear, Sadness and Joy. Most of Riley's young life has been filled with happiness, so it makes sense that sparkly blue-haired Joy is the the de facto leader of the group. (Also, she's got more than enough energy to take on the job.) But suddenly blue Sadness, who had previously not had much of a purpose, is doing things that are having a seemingly negative impact on Riley. And soon, Joy and Sadness must venture into the heretofore unexplored realms of Riley's mind to save Riley from what they fear may be an irrevocable loss of happiness.

The world of Riley's mind is like a slightly askew, dreamed up version of Disneyland, and how it all works is best to discover yourselves, with its literal "Train of Thought," "Islands of Identity" and lands devoted to abstract thought, daydreams, and nightmares. Joy and Sadness's adventures through this virtual id are colorful, exciting, and very, very funny. You'll find out why you can't remember that phone number, but can sing the words to that stupid commercial jingle at the drop of the hat. You'll see how your nightmares are really formed. And you'll learn that your childhood imaginary friends might still be running around up there, waiting for you to want to play again. (Riley's is named Bing Bong, and he's voiced by the hilarious Richard Kind.)

All of the emotions are cast perfectly. Of course Lewis Black makes an ideal red-faced Anger. Bill Hader's Fear is like Bill Nye the Science Guy if he were literally afraid of everything. Mindy Kaling's valley girl voice has finally found the perfect home in her green-haired Disgust. And Amy Poehler's Joy is basically the animated equivalent of her Parks and Recreation character Leslie Knope, filled with boundless optimism and never-quit spunk.

But it's Phyllis Smith, who is probably best known for playing Phyllis on The Office, who is the biggest revelation. Personifying sadness could easily lead to some, well, depressing cliches, and a character you'd never want to spend any time with. But Smith's bulky sweater-clad, bespectacled Sadness, who is always a little slow, and a tad quiet, but also very smart, is completely endearing, and the film's highlight.

If this were a simpler animated movie, then there would be a clear villain the Emotions have to conquer in order to save Riley from permanent sadness. But part of what makes Inside Out so great is that what the Emotions are trying to save Riley from — Sadness — is one of them. And a very important one of them at that. It's not for nothing that both Joy and Sadness are the only Emotions with a matching hair color...

Much of Inside Out will probably go over the heads of younger viewers, but there's plenty of action, color, and laughs to keep them entertained, so, go ahead. Bring those kids of yours. Especially those girls! Because one of the film's biggest accomplishments is finally giving us an animated movie, centered on a girl, that isn't in any way about princesses, or quests, or being "special." This is a story about, very simply, one girl's happiness. And it turns out, that can be an extraordinary thing.

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