Pixar knocks it out of the park with "Inside Out"

Pixar Animation Studios is back on top of the mountain with their latest release, "Inside Out."

Please don't misunderstand; Pixar hasn't exactly been bad, but it's been a long time since we've seen a movie that's met the high level of standards they've set for themselves since their debut feature, "Toy Story."

Over the past four years, Pixar has produced Cars 2 (2011), Brave (2012) and Monsters University (2013). While "Brave" was a solid effort (and won the Oscar, although it's debatable whether it should have), none of the three movies leading into 2015 were anything to shout about, with the "Cars" and "Monsters, Inc" sequels downright average. To top it off, "The Good Dinosaur" was supposed to be released in 2014, but thanks to a change in director, as well as production issues, it was pushed back to November 25, 2015. For the first time in ten years, Pixar didn't have a film to release.

To be fair, all three movies made post 2010 earned well over $500 Million (with Monsters coming in at nearly $750 Million) apiece, but "Cars 2" and "Monsters University" were far from the avant-garde film making that highlighted much of the studio's 25 years of producing feature and short films. These two films seemed more about the money grab, and less about the art.

It's hard to hit a home run every time.

Perhaps the studio lost direction, with many of their best directors getting pulled for other Disney projects outside of Pixar. Even studio head John Lasseter has been split over the years, running both Pixar and Disney since Pixar was officially purchased by Disney in early 2006. There have been rumblings that all of the best ideas either couldn't be vetted out, or that the talented staff had been diluted in the merge with Disney Animation.

What has made Pixar special over the years is both their innovative stories and that their ability to make children's movies that were very much relevant to adults. Most kid's movies make parents want to gauge your eyes out, especially when the kids want to watch them over-and-over.

Pixar has always been different in that regard. While the obvious movies that have that cross-over appear are "WALL-E" (literally about the destruction of the earth) and "UP" (an old man whose wife has passed, and who leaves the real world by tying thousands of balloons to his house), you can point to several others that tugged at parents emotions.

In Toy Story (and sequels) you can't watch that movie without thinking of lost youth. In "Finding Nemo," it's a story of a parent searching for their child. The list goes on-and-on, but the humor, animations and scripts all connect to the adults to the films, while their kids are enjoying it on a much more basic level.

Over the past four years, those dual connections have taken a bit of a hit. There were several questions about whether or not the magic had left the studio that had produced such magic up through "Toy Story 3."

If there truly were questions, they were all answered with Pixar's latest movie, "Inside Out," which was co-written and directed by Pete Doctor, whose also helmed "Up" which may have been the best and most complex Pixar movie ever made. Doctor also wrote "Toy Story" and "Toy Story 2," as well as "WALL-E."

He was the right guy for Pixar's to turn to to right the ship.

On the outside looking in, this is a film that deals with a child growing up and going through several changes, including moving, new friends, new school and new and painfully uncomfortable social situations. For adults, this is a story about memories, family and how easy it is to forget the innocence of our youth. This doesn't even take into account the parents role in this movie.

But, that's the periphery.

We aren't on the "outside" all that much. Instead, much of the movie takes place inside the mind of pre-teen Riley (Kaitlyn Dias), in which there are five emotions that "team-up" and allow her to make decisions, and function appropriately. It deals with the complex ideas of short and long-term memory, and how they deal and relate to each other.

Golden Joy (who is played magnificently by Amy Poehler) is the centerpiece of the emotions in Riley's early life, and is given the prominent role among her fellow emotions. Blue Sadness (Phyllis Smith from the office) mopes around the control room like Debbie Downer from Saturday Night Live. Green Disgust (Mindy Kaling) is busy teaching a young Riley that broccoli isn't to be trusted, and is pretty sure of herself. Red Anger (Lewis Black) is perhaps the loudest, who is busy blowing his stack (literally) over just about everything. The biggest scene stealer of the bunch is Purple Fear (Bill Hader), who seems ready to jump through the roof at every turn. These emotions are constantly battling for control, although Joy is clearly the one that everyone looks to as the leader. These color-coded emotions are the centerpiece of this movie, and really take the viewers, parents and children alike, on a roller coaster of...well...emotions.

Each emotional memory is stored in an orb, which is color-coated to each individual emotion. There are five key orbs, which stores extremely important memories that act as "core memories." These are connected from the control room to islands that form Riley's pre-pubescent personality.

The storyline is fairly simple. Joy is running the show as Riley grows up in Minnesota in a picture-perfect home, with the American Dream life. That's when things shift. Riley's parents (Kyle MacLachlan and Diane Lane) move to San Francisco for Dad's tech start-up company. Riley is running the gambit of emotions, as her family moved from her childhood home. Joy begins to get tested pretty consistently by Sadness, who can't help but want to touch all of the joyful orbs, which for the first time, are then changed to Sadness blue. When Joy and Sadness are sucked out of the emotional 'Headquarters,' and are dumped in the Long-Term memories (next to her five main character traits, that slowly are wiped out throughout the film). This leaves Fear, Anger and Disgust trying to run the show, but Riley can't be happy or sad.

Imagine that, a child around puberty feeling angry and depressed. It's a beautifully inventive way to attack the very real problems that pre-teens go through as they begin to enter puberty, but it's done in an incredibly safe and trusting way.

This is when we meet Bing Bong (Pixar staple, Richard Kind), Riley's long gone imaginary friend, who helps them along their journey back to the headquarters. Without getting too into the plot, this trio have to find a way back to headquarters before Riley's five character traits are gone forever, because she can't feel joy or sadness. The most immediate fear is that Bing Bong is in jeopardy of being "Memory Dumped," a process that has the least important memories shuffled off to disappear. It adds an urgency to the film that kids can definitively understand, while the parents will be worrying about what might happen to Riley. It's such a beautifully simplistic parallel which showcases Pixar and Doctor at their peak.

Bing Bong leads them through several areas of the mind, and we get to see Imagination Land, Dream Production Studios, the Subconscious and my personal favorite, Abstract Thought, which transforms all the major characters into abstract art. Perhaps my favorite part of the movie was when the movie's explanation of how certain songs get stuck into our heads.

This is a movie that tugs at every emotion.

This is a pretty haughty concept to consider for a children's movie, which likely explains the PG rating, only the fourth in Pixar history ("The Incredibles," "Up," and "Brave"). Imagine a children's movie that's dealing with the realistic possibility that Joy could disappear before you're a teenager, or at least be a whole lot tougher to attain.

In the end, this story does what all good Pixar films do: leave you as a sniveling mess. It is definitely about loss: losing your childhood memories and home, and losing that innocence. While there are plenty of laughs to be had thanks to a top-notch cast, this story is innately full of the angst and melancholy of growing up. There are definitive connections to this movie and that of Toy Story, but it brings us much closer to the human side of it, and takes us away from the toys. It's less safe, and in a lot of ways, is built to show us how important that Sadness truly is in our lives, and that it really does let us appreciate the Joy even more.

This complicated and original idea works because it does what the creative minds at Pixar have done so well over the years: the film allows the viewer to suspend the disbelief of watching animation, while connecting to the basic emotions that made us who we are today. I'm not sure if children watching this will understand the interplay of these five emotions (and many more), but in the end, it doesn't matter.

"Inside Out" so masterfully leads us through our own emotions, that most will take away the theme of the film whether they know it or not. Pixar is clearly flexing their muscles in a way we haven't seen since Woody and Buzz last graced the theaters in 2010.

While I'm not sure if this movie will truly stack up with "Finding Nemo" or "Up" when its all said and done, the rich and delightful tale is both endearingly hilarious and wistfully sad at the same time, We'll see if it truly stands the test of time, or if it's just a welcome change to Pixar's recent offerings.
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