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Inside Out (2015)

I Think I Can, I Think I Can, I Think I Can!

I rarely need to see a movie twice before writing about it, but Inside Out was too much to absorb in one go.* The first time was about all about experiencing the story and appreciating Pixar's latest advances in digital animation and design. The second was a mental scavenger hunt, a chance to pick up more of the acute visual, philosophical, and intellectual details that co-directors Pete Docter and Ronaldo Del Carmen have hidden in plain sight. Leaving the theatre Saturday afternoon, I realized that still a third trip is in order because, even knowing where to spot the emotional signposts, I probably missed a third of the subtext due to embarrassing bouts of tears and laughter.

Inside Out tells the story of 11-year-old Riley (voiced by Kaitlyn Dias), a hockey-obsessed middle-schooler whose parents (Kyle MacLachlan and Diane Lane) uproot her from Minnesota to San Francisco. While Dad tries to get his tech start-up off the ground, Mom wrestles with putting their townhouse together and tracking down a lost moving van--leaving Riley to make due with a sleeping bag on the floor of her creepy attic-bedroom and prepare for life in a new school. Riley's world becomes a typhoon of conflicting emotions, duking it out for supremacy in her mind.

Cut to Riley's mind, a TRON-like landscape of technologically sleek yet oddly viscous neural pathways stretching out as far as the third-eye can see. Overlooking the "Islands of Personality" and the descending wastelands of Long-term Memory, the Subconscious, and Forgotten Memory is a gleaming white tower from which Riley's five emotions govern her every action: Joy (Amy Poehler), Sadness (Phyllis Smith), Anger (Lewis Black), Disgust (Mindy Kaling), and Fear (Bill Hader). Joy, the relentlessly peppy optimist, has been at the helm since birth. She tolerates her companions because, well, she has to: she's Joy. As Riley's life turns upside down, Sadness steps to the fore, touching the glowing golden "core memory" orbs and turning them her sad shade of blue. During a scuffle to protect these memories, Joy and Sadness get sucked into a tube and jettisoned to Long-term Memory--leaving the three worst-equipped-for-change emotions to navigate Riley's greatest struggle.

Pixar is famous for cartoon buddy-comedies involving adventures through fantastical realms, whose perils expand their protagonists' horizons while tugging at the audience's heartstrings. You can probably imagine Joy and Sadness encountering dream creatures and coping with the disintegration of various memories and Islands of Personality as Riley reluctantly grows up. I won't spoil any more of the journey for you, as Inside Out demands to be seen (more than once) on screens as big as its heart. Inside Out may be Pixar's best film; it's probably their most ambitious; definitely their most mature.

That said, I'm not convinced this is a kids' movie. At least, not a little kids' movie. Sure, tykes and toddlers will sit through Inside Out because of the goofy, brightly colored characters and settings. And the "Train of Thought" is loud and zippy enough to pop them back to attention whenever the story gets too heady. But this is a dream film for adults, pre-teens, and teenagers--a how-to manual and an emotional tool belt for navigating the complexities of society and the bizarre chemical forces that govern our own inner workings. It's a movie about empathy; it's a wonderfully subtle anti-bullying piece; most importantly, Docter, Del Carmen, and co-screenwriters Meg LeFauve, and Josh Cooley brazenly state that not only is it okay to be sad sometimes, but that there is tremendous purpose in honoring one's complete range of emotions and sharing them with the world. Feelings are tricky things, as we see here, informing and dominating each other--and even disguising themselves as other feelings just to get us through the day.

One of the most interesting aspects of Inside Out is it's the rare Disney/Pixar film not dependent on death, divorce or familial dysfunction as dramatic crutch catalysts. As envisioned by Docter and Del Carmen, these mental battles are inherently cinematic: a bus entering an expressway on-ramp feels just as high-stakes, it turns out, as planet-threatening mutants or maniacal machines. The creators finely weave function into their characters' form: the emotions' fuzzy stippled outlines reminded me of sidewalk-chalk drawings, their ill-defined edges suited to the malleable, ethereal-construct nature of these irrational but vital beings.

This attention to detail carries over into the smallest corners of Riley's "Headquarters". Sure, the jokes about the master control panel's swear-word buttons are great (especially as delivered by Black, who creates a character rather than just cashing in on a persona). I was far more interested in the shelves of Mind Manuals that Joy and Sadness absent-mindedly flip through--an untapped treasure trove of evolutionary information that, collectively, we haven't even begun to decipher, but which exists within us all.

You wouldn't know it by looking at the summer box office returns, but 2015 has been a great year for movies that explore what makes us tick. Yes, we've chucked ungodly amounts of cash at fleeting amusements like Jurassic WorstMarvel Heroes XVI, and Terminator: Maybe Next Time, but a handful of really important, really entertaining films have invigorated the mainstream well with the high-end graphics audiences need, the thrills they claim to want, and the brains they've gone without for so long that they no longer recognize them. It's a crime against art when only critics and a relative handful of moviegoers seem to care about Ex MachinaMad Max: Fury Road, and Inside Out--the latter of which is both a thematic and literal refutation of the "Just Turn Off Your Brain" mentality so prevalent between May and September.

Lucky us, Pixar's latest is gradually finding its people. Last weekend, it gained the distinction of being the highest-grossing US film to never claim the top box office spot. People are turning out and telling their friends about this fully realized creative interpretation of science and spirit that feels at once eerily intimate and divinely universal. And they're going back, too.

*That didn't keep me from podcasting about it, but conversation and introspective analysis are two different things.

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