Pixar’s latest, while thoughtful, falls a bit short

Inside Out, the latest computer animated feature from the master storytellers at Pixar, contains all the ingredients we expect from that justly-celebrated studio.

There’s a clever premise: all the principal characters are the conflicting emotions inside an adolescent girl’s highly active mind. The animation delights with its inventive richness and detail. The voice talent—including Amy Poehler (Joy), Lewis Black (Anger), Bill Hader (Fear), Mindy Kaling (Disgust) and Phyllis Smith (Sadness)—excels in bringing these abstract conceptual characters to life. And the brisk direction of Pete Docter (who previously helmed Up and Monsters, Inc.) keeps the story moving and the energy focused.

So why did I leave the theater underwhelmed and slightly let down? Have we all come to expect so much from a Pixar movie—not just craft and entertainment and innovation but also emotional substance—that the bar the studio has set for itself is just impossible to leap over? Perhaps, but I suspect the problem is simpler than that.

The very top tier Pixar movies (which, for me, would be The Incredibles, WALL-E and Toy Story 3) all have solid stories replete with imagination and high energy, but they also create a powerful emotional connection between the main characters and the viewer. That resonance is difficult, maybe even impossible to achieve in Inside Out when those characters are not well-rounded, nuanced personalities but rather manifestations of single emotions. Joy can only be joyful; Anger can only be angry.

It is funny in the moment to see Anger literally blow his top, especially when accompanied by the familiarly aggravated voice of Lewis Black. However, that joke gradually loses its punch with every reprise. Furthermore, it’s difficult to connect with any single emotion.

The overarching (if glib) point of Inside Out is that we humans need all of our emotions, but that truism defies easy depiction on screen.

All this is not to say that Inside Out doesn’t have ample virtues and wonderful moments.

The visual depiction of the inner workings of the mind is thrillingly layered and effective, with just the right measure of eye candy. The script, written by Docter and his co-director, Ronaldo del Carmen, slips wittily back and forth between the exterior life of Riley, the girl who is the keeper of these feelings, and the frenetic interplay of her emotional avatars.

I especially enjoyed the voice casting of the film, not only with the principals, but also Richard Kind as Bing Bong, a forgotten imaginary friend from childhood; Paula Poundstone and Bobby Moynihan as no-nonsense workers in the long-term memory stacks; and of course, the required inclusion of John Ratzenberger, who has voiced a character in every Pixar release.

The splashy primary colors, the quick pace, and the simple humor will all register with the real target market of the movie, kids. Most viewers, young and old, will go home satisfied with another 90 minutes of Pixar magic—as well they should.

The fault here is in this critic, who expects (or at least fervently wishes for) one of those transcendent experiences that Pixar is uniquely capable of producing. An unrealistic expectation, perhaps, but I guess Sadness can overcome Joy for me as well as the girl at the center of Inside Out.

The Overnight

Adam Scott and Taylor Schilling as Alex and Emily in The Overnight. (Photo courtesy of The Orchard)

Adam Scott and Taylor Schilling as Alex and Emily in The Overnight. (Photo courtesy of The Orchard)

In this new indie movie, writer-director Patrick Brice imagines the wildest of introductions to life in La-La Land for a young couple transplanted from Seattle. Alex and Emily (Adam Scott and Taylor Schilling) meet Kurt and Charlotte (Jason Schwartzman and Judith Godrèche) through their children’s playground encounter. A casual family pizza night turns into an increasingly bizarre series of personal revelations and discoveries between the two couples.

Not funny enough to be unequivocally a comedy, and too shallow to be truly insightful, The Overnight instead languishes in this limbo state of quizzical discomfort for the characters and viewers alike. The film shares inspirational DNA with the work of Aubrey Plaza and Mark Duplass and Portlandia’s Fred Armisen and Carrie Brownstein, but sometimes profound awkwardness is not really funny, it’s just…awkward.

Mark Fields
Mark Fields has reviewed films for Out & About since October 2008. In addition, he has written O&A profiles of documentarian Harry Shearer and actress Aubrey Plaza. Mark also has written on the movies for several publications in Pennsylvania, Michigan, and his home state of Indiana, where he also served as on-air movie critic for Indianapolis’s public radio station. Mark has been an adjunct instructor of film history at Rowan University since 1998. A career arts administrator, he is the executive director of Wilmington’s Grand Opera House and now lives on Market Street. Mark spent the fastest 22 minutes of his life as an unsuccessful contestant on Jeopardy…sadly, there were no movie questions.