Inside Out: Pixar returns to animated genre with maturity

If Christopher Nolan made a children’s movie, it might end up something very similar to “Inside Out,” the latest Disney/Pixar blockbuster to hit theaters.

The ultimate thinking man’s kids’ film (both figuratively and literally), director Pete Docter’s third feature film is incredibly layered and cerebral in much more complex ways than his other features, 2001’s “Monsters, Inc.” and 2009’s “Up.”

On the surface, “Inside Out” focuses on the emotional states (Joy, Sadness, Fear, Disgust and Anger) of a pre-teen girl named Riley, whose family moves from Minnesota to San Francisco abruptly and without warning. Much of the film is viewed from inside Riley’s brain, with Riley herself reduced to nothing more than a secondary character. Visually, the difference between the real world and the one in Riley’s head is defined by brightness, with real world scenes more tampered down than the vividly bright world of her mind.

While not exactly on par with Pixar’s upper echelon features like “Toy Story” and “Finding Nemo,” “Inside Out” does mark a much needed return to the big screen for one of animation’s top studios, whose last release, “Monsters University,” came out in 2013. Thankfully, Pixar is back in a big and bright way with “Inside Out” and viewers will get a second helping of Pixar later this year with the release of “The Good Dinosaur.”

The journey itself doesn’t provide anything new or extraordinary, but what sets “Inside Out” apart from more pedestrian children’s movies is just how inventive the film is conceptually. Animation usually deals with the surreal and unbelievable on an external scale — i.e. What if all my toys came to life when I’m not around?

Turning the camera around and looking internally within oneself is something generally left up to high concept science fiction films.  While Docter’s film is certainly not without its flaws — running time being a major concern as “Inside Out” tends to drag in the middle — it does reflect a major step forward in animation and family-friendly films in general.

Visually, the film is one of Pixar’s better works, dynamic and vivid inside Riley’s mind, while at the same time, the real world feels authentic to the eye in a much more realistic way than your average animated films. There’s two distinct animation styles at play in the film and both stand out on their own while working in harmony with each other.

For as good as the directorial and animation work is, “Inside Out” doesn’t click in quite the same way without the dynamic and rich vocals of lead voice actress Amy Poehler, whose glee as the emotion Joy evokes much of the high energy character that Poehler became famous for as government worker Leslie Knope in TV’s “Parks and Recreation.”

So much of the success in animated films is getting the lead voice actors right, from Tim Allen and Tom Hanks in “Toy Story” to Ellen DeGeneres in “Finding Nemo” and Idina Menzel and Kristen Bell in “Frozen.” A good vocal talent can elevate animation beyond the visual and bring the cartoons to life, whereas poor, miscast voices just clutter things up.

Poehler, who’s lived on high-energy performances, is ideally suited to play the perpetually perky Joy, leading a rag-tag group of emotions voiced by comedic all-stars like Bill Hader (Fear) and Mindy Kaling (Disgust). Comic Lewis Black, who humorously yells through much of his standup, fits like a glove as Anger, the best animated emotion, drawn flame red, stocky and evocative of the stereotypical newsroom editor, complete with a thick mustache reminiscent of Mike Ditka.

It should come as no surprise to fans of the American version of the hit television comedy, “The Office” that Poehler’s main counterbalance, always gloomy Sadness, would be voiced by Phyllis Smith, who perfected the role as a Debbie Downer cubicle worker. Smith brings all the fervor from her classic television performances to the big screen and is a refreshing new voice to animation, one to stick around for a long time.

Veteran character actor Richard Kind stands out among the vocal talent in a secondary role as Riley’s imaginary best friend, Bing Bong, slowly being forgotten as she gets older.

“Inside Out” forces younger viewers to ask difficult questions like “Why is sometimes being sad a good thing?” and “How do I best deal with change?” While conceptually geared more toward pre-teen and teenage audiences, younger viewers will still find a great deal of enjoyment following Joy and Sadness as they fight to make their way back home.

Audiences are seeing Pixar grow up as a studio with “Inside Out,” a more mature offering that still keeps in the overall mold of classic animated hits, but shows more depth and deserves multiple viewings to understand all the film’s subtle complexities.

‘Lava’

Following an ongoing Disney trend for family-friendly entertainment, a short film entitled “Lava” is screened prior to the start of “Inside Out.”

Basically a music video drawn out a tad too long at six-plus minutes, “Lava” follows the story of a lonely volcano looking to find his volcano soulmate.

The effort is cutesy and just slightly over the top, not really living up to the much higher standards of “Inside Out,” though the song itself is memorable and catchy.

Don’t fret if you’re running behind at the concession stand, however, as “Lava” isn’t the must see that its feature partner is.

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