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How good is too good?

Can an animated feature be too good for its audience? We’re about to find out.

“Inside Out” is exquisite, one of the greatest animated films ever. Certainly, it’s the smartest mass market animated film ever made, a groundbreaking triumph for Pixar right up there with “Toy Story.”

It’s not as emotionally powerful a film as the sublime “Up” or “Wall-E” but it is, to be sure, even more inventive than those two modern animation masterpieces.

But that may be the problem. Is it just too smart for the little ones in the southernmost end of its targeted audience? There’s no question that open-minded adults will find it marvelous in every way.

And those of us who have always treasured animated films as the place where cinematic creativity can live fully and with no apology careen from delight to delight for the 94 minutes of “Inside Out.”

But I worried about the little ones. So I paid as careful attention to the kids as I could during the final gag reel scenes that run along with the film’s final credits. A gaggle of exiting girls about 7 or 8 years old giggled joyfully right up to the final scenes of frolicking kittens.

But one little one – a girl no more than 3 or 4 – was crying as her parents led her out of the theater. I’m sure the emotional wreckage had nothing to do with the movie, but what also was apparent was that she wasn’t so involved with the movie either that emotional washout was avoided.

Emotions are what this amazing Pixar fantasy is about. We’re watching them more than we are experiencing them. We are, throughout the movie, inside the head of a happy, spunky, preteen girl named Riley.

She loves her parents and her BFF and playing hockey – maybe even in that order.

We know that for sure because we spend the whole movie listening to the eloquent emotions inside her head, all of whom are personified – Amy Poehler as the voice of Joy, Phyllis Smith as ever-mopey Sadness, Bill Hader as Fear, Mindy Kaling as Disgust and the great sclerotic comic Lewis Black as, what else, Anger.

To a shocking degree, Joy seems to be the one running the show at “headquarters” inside Riley. She’s the one with the most energy and the one the others seem to defer to.

But then catastrophe strikes. Mom and Dad, without warning, move the three of them from their beloved Minnesota to San Francisco, where Dad is hoping to get his startup company flourishing. (Mom’s rather heavenly voice is suppled by Diane Lane; Dad’s sleepy and confused one by Kyle McLachlan.)

Riley goes into a tailspin. Joy and Sadness are both completely lost inside the incredible bureaucracy inside Riley’s head. All of Riley’s memories start out inside clear plastic balls the size of softballs. They all start going to the wrong places. We see in this movie where core memories are stored, where the Islands of Family and Friendship are. We see actual Trains of Thought – real mini-trains – that carry emotions from one place to another.

We follow, with Joy and Sadness, into the dark depths of the subconscious where the wild and bad memories are. We meet Riley’s imaginary friend in childhood, a sweet, adoring stuffed toy called Bing Bong voiced perfectly by Richard Kind. And we careen around with Riley’s unstable emotions as she – egged on by permanently red-faced Anger inside her head – decides to run away back to Minnesota where joy seemed to reign completely over her inner life.

All of this is handled with a ceaseless inventiveness that is spectacular – so much so that the little ones may have trouble following it. And let’s not kid ourselves either. It won’t just be the little ones who may feel abandoned by an animated feature as relentlessly and brilliantly creative as this one. There will be adults, too, who will instantly apprehend the radical and unmistakable difference in the amount of brainpower required to ride around from plot flourish to plot flourish and rebel against it.

It reminded me of one of the legendary moments in the history of early television when the incredible comedy minds in Sid Caesar’s writers room conceived of a man’s head as a corporate office full of overstressed bureaucrats and people in charge trying hilariously to cooperate and keep their host body from getting drunk and falling face first to the floor. It allowed everyone – Caesar, Carl Reiner, Howie Morris, Imogene Coca – to be in constant full-scale comic panic inside an utterly amazing set. I don’t know if writer/director Pete Docter knew that Caesar fantasy, but that’s what he’s doing here with such unflagging inspiration that the film is a small milestone in animated film – a landmark for the audience that wants and is ready for it. But in all art, popular and otherwise, there are those who resist such radical departures. While this movie’s train steams off to unknown territory, they’ll be left back at the station, sadly.

Joy and Sadness have a hard time in “Inside Out” figuring out how each one fits together as Riley approaches puberty. In the film’s audience, those seeking comfort and those seeking wonderment may, similarly, have a difficult time figuring out how they fit together inside a movie theater.

I’m on Joy’s side. Every single solitary step of the way.


Inside Out

4 stars

With the voices of: Amy Poehler, Phyllis Smith, Richard Kind, Lewis Black, Mindy Kaling

Director: Pete Docter

Running time: 94 minutes

Rating: PG-13 for mild thematic elements and some action.

The Lowdown: Animated feature in which the emotions inside young Riley’s head scheme and squabble when she moves from Minnesota to San Francisco.

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