Joy is the dominant emotion of Inside Out—that’s Joy with a capital J, the first-among-supposed-equals struggling for the heart, and soul, of the lovely little heroine at the center of Pixar’s latest masterpiece of animation. Proving once more that their best work is a mix of the dark and the wondrous, the Pixar people—among them director Pete Docter (“Up,” “Monsters, Inc.”) and co-director Ronaldo Del Carmen—go inside the head of a young girl named Riley (voice of Kaitlyn Dias), who has been uprooted from her beloved Minnesota and deposited in San Francisco by understanding parents who would like to know what she’s thinking. No, they don’t. Besides: Thinking, as we see while traveling inside Riley’s mind, is secondary to feeling, and the daily operation of what Riley’s feeling is being run by a crew of mixed (up) emotions.
In addition to Joy (Amy Poehler), there’s Anger (Lewis Black), who’s usually fuming, literally; Disgust (Mindy Kaling), who is, perhaps not so ironically, the most socially adept of all the emotions; Fear (Bill Hader), who frets and cringes and wears a Chanel-patterned sweater vest (what’s he afraid of?) and Sadness (Phyllis Smith), Joy’s most direct competition for Riley’s destiny, a rather sweet, unassuming agent-saboteur who keeps turning Riley’s fondest memories blue (like her), and sending the girl’s demeanor into a downward spiral.
It is pretty sophisticated stuff. Who among the great filmmakers has put the workings of the human psyche front and center and made it so intellectually engrossing? Hitchcock? Bergman? Maybe, but I really can’t remember laughing very much at “Vertigo” or “Persona.” But with “Inside Out” the laughs are regular and pointed—and likely to be way over the head of the tots who will be taken to see this pastel-paletted marvel. Perhaps, like an amusement park ride, there should be a height requirement before one gets aboard. No, that wouldn’t matter: The taller people will actually be more disturbed than the kids.
What, after all, is free will about, or human intellect for that matter, absent a balanced emotional life? When Joy and Sadness get separated from the control tower—and video-game console—by which the Emotions maintain the equilibrium of the usually cheerful Riley, what results is a kind of spiritual death spiral. Even kids who have not gone through what Riley does will recognize the barely contained anguish she feels after she and her Midwestern parents (Diane Lane, Kyle MacLachlan) arrive in oh-so-foreign San Francisco, their furniture gets stuck on a moving van in Texas, they find a dead mouse in the living room and her first day at school turns into a debacle: As she’s introducing herself to her class, Sadness is turning her memories of Minnesota blue. Riley’s composure collapses along with various Core Memories, which are shaped like marbles (as in, don’t lose ‘em...).
It’s a little agonizing—much of “Inside Out” resembles one of those dreams where you can’t quite get where you have to be. But what it also implies, as Riley’s various Islands of Personality (Friends, Family, Hockey, Goofball, etc.) are seen to be shutting down and going out of business, is that pulling oneself out of a similar depression would require a rallying of emotions that might simply be impossible. Especially if your personal Joy and Sadness are getting lost amid the data banks of Longtime Memory, trying to catch the Train of Thought and wandering into a realm of dormant nightmares (where broccoli and Jangles the Party Clown are lurking).
On the up side, they also run into Riley’s old invisible friend, the hot-pink Bing Bong (Richard Kind), who shows them around the place (“Look, there’s critical thinking...and déjà vu...and language processing...and déjà vu...”). One of the funnier sequences—because it’s so absolutely on the money—involves a couple of maintenance workers vacuuming up and discarding no-longer useful memories. Like phone numbers (“She’s got ‘em on her cell...”) And piano lessons (“Keep ‘Chop-Sticks’ and ‘Heart and Soul’ and dump the rest...”)
Pixar’s feature films—the best of them—have had an almost morbid subtext: The downsizing single-mother of the “Toy Story” films (not to mention the eternal-damnation theme of “TS3”); director Brad Bird’s Objectivist philosophizing in “Ratatouille” and “The Incredibles”; the eco-apocalypse predicted by “WALL-E.” The latest skirts the territory of mental illness: Riley, left unmoored by an AWOL Joy and Sadness (who are, the movie wisely concludes, complementary) decides to run away back to Minnesota, steals a credit card from her mother to do so, and walks the scaffolded streets of San Francisco like an outpatient. All of this is totally uncharacteristic of a girl who was the picture of happiness until she got her life uprooted to a place where they put broccoli on pizza (“You ruined pizza! rants Anger. “Nice going San Francisco! First the Hawaiians, now you!”) Where will Riley end up, should her emotions fail to get it together and save her life? We shudder to imagine.
A film about which this reviewer has no mixed emotions at all is Me and Earl and the Dying Girl, directed by Alfonso Gomez-Rejon and written by Jesse Andrews from his best-selling young adult novel. Despite coming out of the Sundance Film Festival on a tsunami of positive hype (not always a good sign) it is likely to be one of the better movies of the year when 2015 is through.
An intelligent, emotionally honest and satisfying film, “Me and Earl” has something of a foolproof emotional centerpiece—a beautiful, dying teenage girl. But while the fate of Rachel (Olivia Cooke) is certainly the core issue of the movie, the story belongs to Greg (Thomas Mann), a teenager who purposely avoids emotional or political commitment (avoiding alliances with any and all cliques at his high school, for instance) until he is coerced by his mother (Connie Britton) into spending time with Rachel. What develops is an utterly convincing relationship, between Greg and Rachel, and Greg and himself. Much of Mr. Gomez-Rejon’s previous work as a director (“American Horror Story,” “The Town that Dreaded Sundown”) has been in a totally different genre, but he has worked for and with, among others, Martin Scorsese, Nora Ephron and Alejandro González Iñárritu. He brings to “Earl” something rare at the movies these days, an ability to convey emotion through image. His visual sense, rooted in cinema history, elevates a film that likely would have been first-rate anyway, but a talent like his is what separates mere film from film art.