Intelligent, amusing “Inside Out” plays on, and with, our emotions

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The trouble with Pixar is that they set the bar too high.

How to you top “Up” or trump “Toy Story”?

If “Inside Out” is any indication, you do so by making them again. The new Pixar film by Pete Docter, who directed “Up” and “Monster’s Inc” and wrote “Toy Story” inevitably begs comparison to Pixar’s greatest hits. And like those films “Inside Out” plays on our emotions, this time literally.

aio_Joy_standardOstensibly about a hockey loving 11-year old girl whose life is thrown into turmoil when her family moves across country, “Inside Out” is really about the voices in her, and our, heads.

Casting those voices is where the film excels. Who better to represent the irrepressible optimism of the emotion Joy than Amy Poehler, whose performance here is indistinguishable from her “Parks and Recreation” ebullience.

Joy works overtime to ensure she is the girl’s default state of mind. Each of the girl’s memories are turned into marble sized balls and stored in a mammoth vault where some over time are lost but special ones, called core memories, form her personality.

And when the Eeyore-like Sadness (Phyllis Smith) accidentally ruins some memories, she and Joy take off on a journey through the girl’s consciousness to recover them, leaving Anger (Lewis Black), Fear (Bill Hader) and Disgust (Mindy Kaling) in charge of the dashboard that controls the girl’s emotions.

Chaos, of course, reigns, and Joy watches helplessly from afar as the girl’s life spins out of control.

While we see snatches of the girl, her father and mother interacting – and see inside the parent’s minds too – the real story takes place within.

With this film Pixar achieves the uncanny valley, the point where digital human characters look real, unlike in “Toy Story” where they had a plasticene sheen that made the toys seem human by comparison.

Here the fantasy characters are scruffy and cartoonish, big-eyed, crayon-colored emoticons furry as plush toys (which they will surely become if they are not already) and look a bit like Troll dolls.

The fish-out-of water story of friendship, loyalty and childhood, and the adventure taken is the “Toy Story” playbook for the “Frozen” generation.

There is a bit of Hayao Miyazaki’s influence in the portrayal of abstract concepts connecting the girl’s bad decisions with her emotional meltdown, although its cause and effect literalism is without the Japanese animator’s ethereal ambiguities.

(Coincidentally, “When Marnie Was Here,” an animated film from Miyazaki’s studio also opens Friday).

And while intelligent, amusing and universally appealing we have seen “Inside Out” before.

Considering the caliber of films that went before it, that’s a compliment and an accomplishment.

(The digital short “Lava,” being shown before “Inside Out” is by Marquette alum James Ford Foley, who worked as an animator on “Cars,” “Finding Nemo” and other films.)

Three stars ***

With Amy Poehler, Phyllis Smith, Richard Kind, Bill Hader, Lewis Black, Mindy Kaling, Kaitlyn Dias, Diane Lane, Kyle MacLachlan. Produced by Jonas Rivera. Written by Meg LeFauve, Josh Cooley, Pete Docter. Directed by Pete Docter. Rated PG; mild thematic elements, action. Running time: 94 minutes.

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