Friday, June 19, 2015


Opening this weekend:

Inside Out This animated feature dramatizes the workings of the human mind by personifying the emotions, in this case those of a 12-year-old girl named Riley. Working in a NASA-like mission control is our heroine is Joy (voiced by Amy Poehler), a radiant Tinkerbell-like sprite determined to keep Riley happy; she’s supported by Fear (Bill Hader), Anger (Lewis Black), Disgust (Mindy Kaling) and frumpy, blue-skinned Sadness (Phyllis Smith).

The team’s job is to create memories, here seen as tiny transparent globes glowing with their emotional coloring—gold for Joy, red for Anger, and so forth. Joy tries hard to keep Sadness from touching Riley’s memories and tingeing them blue, but when Riley moves from Minnesota, where she has a best friend and plays hockey, to San Francisco, Joy finds it harder to suppress Sadness.

Eventually the emotional crises that come with a move during childhood cause Joy and Sadness to get separated from the headquarters, leaving Fear, Anger and Disgust in charge. The rest of the movie concerns their Bunyan-esque journey through Riley’s personality to take over again in headquarters.

The conceit of this movie isn’t new. It wasn’t new as the premise of the early-‘90s Fox sitcom Herman’s Head, and wasn’t even new as one of the funnier segments of Woody Allen’s 1972 Everything You Always Wanted to Know About Sex (But Were Afraid to Ask) or the 1970 movie of Norman Juster’s The Phantom Tollbooth. It goes back through the Good and Evil Angels that appear on the shoulders of cartoon characters, and Marlowe’s Dr. Faustus, through medieval morality plays to the Psychomachia of the Roman poet Prudentius.

But it’s possible that no one’s ever done this idea quite as well as Inside Out. One’s expectations for Pixar’s features tend to be pretty high, but even so I wasn’t prepared for how deeply imagined this movie is, or how emotionally potent. Or, for that matter, how wise: the theme is emotional gestalt, and the role of sadness in a healthy personality.

I walked out of the theatre feeling like I’d seen a masterpiece, and a few days later this doesn’t feel like an overreaction. It may be the best movie I’ve seen all year. My only concern is that Inside Out is so fast and complex that some of its subtleties may get past smaller children—the gags about abstract thought could leave a college kid studying for a psych final feeling confused. But even so, the movie is so full of color and comedy that kids will likely enjoy it even if they don’t entirely get it.

Opening today at FilmBar Phoenix:

I Am Big BirdWell, maybe it isn’t quite as soul-stirring a line as “I Am Spartacus.” But only maybe. Certainly the title avian has had a longer and happier career than the hapless gladiator.

Subtitled The Caroll Spinney Story, this documentary chronicles the life of the puppeteer who has given soul to the towering, yellow-plumed fowl, the long-beaked, guileless face of Sesame Street. A soft-spoken Bostonian with a narrow, goateed hippie’s face, Spinney has performed both the childlike Big Bird and, for a bit of Hyde to go with that Jekyll, the curmudgeonly Oscar the Grouch for more than forty years.

Directed by Dave LaMattina and Chad N. Walker and partly funded via Kickstarter, the film is smoothly made if fairly conventional as cinema. It's helped along because Spinney’s life, even before his Sesame Street days, seems to have been unusually well-documented, first by home movies and later, after his marriage to Debra Gilroy in 1979, by home video. It’s the content, however, that makes this the most fascinating show business documentary I’ve seen since, at least, Andrew Leavold’s The Search for Weng Weng.

I’ve been a Sesame Street fan since the show started—I clearly remember watching the first episode, and I watched it religiously for years even though I was too old for it, educationally speaking (I already knew how to read and count). I loved the show simply because it was genuinely funny, and had richer characters than almost any live-action show aimed at kids (or, for the most part, adults) at the time. Oscar was a special favorite of mine from the first.

Even so, I Am Big Bird was full of stuff I didn’t know. It covers everything from Spinney’s difficult relationship with his father to Big Bird’s visits to China to Mitt Romney’s backfired shot at PBS in the 2012 election—probably an attempt, tactically idiotic, to throw red meat to that part of the reactionary Right that hates Sesame Street for being multicultural propaganda (which it certainly is)—to Spinney’s startling near-miss with another historical moment.

But probably nothing in I Am Big Bird is as astounding as the technical explanation of how Big Bird works, and what that has meant, for Spinney and his apprentices, over the years. As a physical acting challenge it makes, say, a DeNiro weight gain or a Christian Bale weight loss look like a walk in the park.

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