When the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences created a special category for animated features in 2001, it sent an unofficial but clear message: No animated film would ever win the Oscar for best picture. They might be nominated, as “Up” and “Toy Story 3” were, but they won’t take home the top prize.
That’s too bad. I haven’t seen a movie this year with a more brilliant combination of imagination, emotionally moving moments, witty writing, visually interesting details and psychologically accurate behavior than “Inside Out.” It reminds us that “Pixar,” “playful” and “profound” can belong in the same sentence.
Pete Docter proved that when he co-wrote and co-directed “Up,” and he’s back in both jobs here: co-director with Ronaldo Del Carmen, co-writer with Meg LeFauve and Josh Cooley.
Most of the story takes place inside the head of an 11-year-old, who’s forced to leave friends and teammates behind when her parents move from Minnesota to San Francisco. That age was carefully chosen: It’s a year ahead of puberty, it’s on the border between elementary school and middle school, and it’s the last time a girl might cling hopefully to the innocence of childhood. It’s also about the youngest age at which a kid might fully comprehend and enjoy “Inside Out.”
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Until now, Joy (Amy Poehler) has mostly run young Riley’s cerebral console, storing bright sunshiny memories and allocating tasks to Fear (Bill Hader), Disgust (Mindy Kaling) and even Anger (Lewis Black). Sadness (Phyllis Smith) has carefully been relegated to as small a role as possible. Nobody wants to keep memories she touches, right? But Sadness begins to take on a key role in Riley’s psyche, often unwillingly or inadvertently, as the family’s new house turns out to be a dump, her dad’s company loses investors and her sports tryout becomes a fiasco.
Soon the “islands” in Riley’s head – Friendship, Hockey, even super-stable Family – begin to crumble. When Joy accidentally gets ejected from Riley’s control center, she sets out across the brain – Sorrow literally in tow, bemoaning her own ejection – to remedy the situation and prevent Riley’s happy core memories from being destroyed.
The filmmakers worked with child psychologists to study the transition from secure girl to insecure preteen. Their movie contains all the right messages: Sadness isn’t a contaminant, memories must inevitably be tinged with all kinds of feelings, and we sometimes learn more through humbled reflection than boisterous action. (Little blue Sadness, lank hair hanging in her round face, has read the operation manuals in Riley’s brain and may be the only one who knows where everything is.)
Meanwhile Docter and Del Carmen take us on a crazy, poignant ride. One minute, they’re introducing us to animal hybrid Bing Bong (Richard Kind), the imaginary friend who now wanders alone through Riley’s memory; next they’re walking us through Riley’s dreams and nightmares, which make us laugh and wince at the same time.
The writers have filled the script with in-jokes, taking Hollywood’s nickname “The Dream Factory” literally in Riley’s case. Any film-aware adult should be able to finish the sentence “Forget it, Jake –” or appreciate the brief scene where characters get visually deconstructed in the Abstract Thought chamber of Riley’s mind. (It plays like an homage to “Pink Elephants on Parade” in “Dumbo,” executive producer John Lasseter’s favorite film.)
The smallest details count for something. Look closely at the fuzzy surfaces of the five glowing emotions, and you see they’re always changing in microscopic ways – just as our feelings do, however much we think they’re set or under control. That kind of subtlety could win a movie a Best Picture Oscar, had the characters been portrayed by live actors. How unfair.
Joy, Sadness, Fear, Anger and Disgust operate the mind of an 11-year-old girl going through life changes. Pixar has never made a better animated film. It’s preceded by the delightful, subtle short “Lava.”
A STARS: Amy Poehler, Phyllis Smith, Richard Kind, Bill Hader, Mindy Kaling, Lewis Black.
DIRECTORS: Pete Docter, Ronaldo Del Carmen.
RUNNING TIME: 94 minutes.
RATING: PG (mild thematic elements and some action).