‘Inside Out’: Pixar film works on multiple levels

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For Digital First Media

Animated children’s films don’t ordinarily explore the human psyche and the vicissitudes of the memory dynamic with any modicum of sophistication. “Inside Out,” the fifteenth feature from Pixar Films, attempts to do so.

“Inside Out” revolves around Riley Anderson (Kaitlyn Dias), an eleven-year old girl, who is growing up in Minneapolis. The only child maintains a close group of friends and basks in glory as the star of her youth hockey team.

Then, one day, everything abruptly changes. Riley’s dad (Kyle MacLachlan) announces that he had landed a new job in San Francisco. Now, Riley, along with her dad and her mom (Diane Lane), must pull up stakes and embark to the West Coast.

Riley is totally bummed out by the prospect of losing her cadre of friends and comfortable Midwestern lifestyle. How will she adjust to a totally new environment? Riley battles with trepidation.

Each of us has conflicting emotions simultaneously swirling around inside of us.  “Inside Out” reduces this complex compendium of feelings to five well-defined characters. The quintet of archetypes includes Joy (Amy Poehler), who supervises her subordinate sidekicks; Sadness (Phyllis Smith), Disgust (Mindy Kaling), Fear (Bill Hader), and Anger (Lewis Black).

These characters maintain an active dialogue inside of the control center within Riley’s head. Imagine a high-tech N.A.S.A. launch site, populated by hyperchromatic, animated figures, who rationally catalogue color-coded sentiments. Note that these feelings are being processed as part of a cerebrotonic process within the brain, rather than a visceral one inside the heart.

Upon arrival, Riley struggles to adjust to her home in San Francisco and being the new kid in her class. Meanwhile, as a result of an accident, Joy and Sadness are both displaced from the control center inside Riley’s brain, where they are supposed to repose.

As a consequence, Riley can no longer feel these key emotions and endogenous turmoil ensues. In addition, whenever Sadness touches a core memory, it is transmuted into negativity. One of Riley’s fondest recollections, shooting a game- winning goal, loses its resonance.

Joy and Sadness try to traverse the labyrinthine path back to the brain’s control center. Along the way, they meet Bing Bong (Richard Kind from television’s “Mad About You”), a jovial, nattily attired pink elephant. When Riley was four, Bing Bong had been her imaginary playmate. However, he has been relegated to being a virtual mnemonic artifact. This is one of the film’s most poignant conceits.

Now revived, Bing Bong accompanies Joy and Sadness through the Land of Imagination, the Realm of Abstract Thought, and the Abyss of the Subconscious. The latter is a deep, dark pit, where some memories are dumped and become permanently inaccessible.

The impressive vocal cast also includes Paula Poundstone; Bobby Moynihan; Muppeteers, Frank Oz and Dave Goelz; and Flea from the Red Hot Chili Peppers. And what Pixar film would be complete without John Ratzenberger on hand?  Not to miss out on all the fun, director, Pete Docter, plays Anger’s father; while co-director, Ronnie del Carmen, provides a spate of voices.

“Inside Out” represents a welcome respite from the anthropomorphized automobiles of “Cars” and the customarily boycentric Pixar universe. Following up on “Brave,” “Inside Out” provides another protagonist, who is an appealing point of identification for tweener females.

While watching “Inside Out,” I feared that young children would feel alienated by some of the more abstruse conceptual paradigms that it presents. However, the enthusiastic reactions of tykes to the film’s brightly colored characters disabused me of my concerns. Once again, Pixar has crafted a work that manages to function on multiple levels. As a consequence, “Inside Out” has allure for pre-schoolers and adults alike.

Since its debut out of competition at the Cannes Film Festival, “Inside Out” has won virtually unanimous critical praise. You say that you’re still not won over yet? The film includes the whimsical closing credit, “Dedicated to our children. Don’t grow up.”

*** PG (for mild thematic elements and some action) 94 minutes. Disney Pixar

Nathan Lerner sees over 200 feature films a year. He welcomes feedback at lernerprose@gmail.com.


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