Tuesday, July 14, 2015

Inside Out Movie Review

Pixar’s latest execution of brilliance is Inside Out. It’s getting more than its fair share of praise and accolades, most of which is justified. Is it their best film since Up, as many have deemed it? Probably, but then we’re really only talking about a stretch of two films in that time, both of which were very good even if they aren’t up to the excellent standard Pixar is renowned for. This feat of genuine creativity and acrobatic storytelling concerns the machinations (both literal and figurative) of Riley, who winds up being a secondary character in the story of her own mind. She is subordinate to, and to some extent controlled by the anthropomorphic representations of emotions in her head.

First at the controls from Riley’s birth is Joy (voiced with effortless energy and enthusiasm by Amy Poehler). It’s not long into Riley’s life that sadness, anger, fear, and disgust show up and occasionally try to run things. But Joy insists on their surrogate’s eternal and perfect happiness at all times, a state of existence whose foundation is chipped away at when Riley’s parents (Diane Lane and Kyle MacLachlan) pick up and move the family from Minnesota to San Francisco. As things start crashing down, Anger (voiced by none other than Lewis Black, of course) and Fear (Bill Hader) come to the forefront of control. Disgust (Mindy Kaling) is none too pleased with the circumstances, but it’s the quiet and introverted Sadness (Phyllis Smith) who does the most damage. Unable to resist her urge to handle Riley’s memory balls (in particular the core memories that help define Riley as a person), she begins changing the nature of the memories from happiness to sadness. Joy fights her for control and both wind up sucked from the control room of Riley’s mind into the arena where memories are stored. Without access to the controls, Riley can’t experience any joy or sadness and so she goes into one of those emotional comas that children can enter into when they just don’t want to face reality.

Pete Docter gets the directing credit on this one, his first since Up. He’s also credited with the story idea along with Ronaldo del Carmen and the screenplay with Meg LaFauve and Josh Cooley. Hader and Poehler get additional dialogue credit most likely for improvising a lot of their lines. But I think the real heroes on this film are the artists and imaginations who helped production designer Ralph Eggleston turn the abstract world of the mind into a tangible representation that is fun, colorful, and quite ingenious. Outside the mind’s control room, they dreamed up several Islands of Personality that are literal depictions of the figurative feelings Riley has about certain groupings of experiences, all of which dictate who she is. So there’s Family Island, which becomes activated when she is having quality family time. Hockey Island represents her favorite activity while Goofball Island is related to childhood innocence and silliness. Honesty and Friendship Islands are self-explanatory. But Joy discovers that these personality traits are not immutable. Their fragility is put to the test when Riley falls into a funk of mild depression. When she learns that her old best friend in Minnesota has a new best friend, that island collapses. So it goes with the others one-by-one. Beneath the islands is the memory dump, where inessential memories are trashed to make room for the new ones. Alongside the dump is the storage area – a vast maze of balls colored to match the emotions that tinge them. So the first time Riley ate broccoli is green, the same color as disgust. The majority are yellow, Joy’s color. But every time Sadness touches a memory ball, it turns blue.

As Joy and Sadness try to make it back to the control room, they meet Bing Bong (the nasally and child-like vocal stylings of Richard Kind), Riley’s old imaginary friend. He’s not quite relegated to the memory dump, but just sort of wanders aimlessly around the storage maze. He knows all the ins and outs of how the Train of Thought runs and where it stops, and how to get through the Abstract Thought passage. He becomes their guide through a universe that is unknown to them and to us.

My only disappointment with the film has more to do with my own expectations of how a children’s film would take a completely abstract concept and render it both story-wise and animation-wise in a way that made sense to people – mainly children – who can’t logically work their heads around abstractions. I was excited to see a movie that only peripherally depicted what was happening in the external world of the mind that was meant to be the center of the story. How could you clue the audience in to the real-world developments in Riley’s life that were affecting the emotions? Unfortunately the movie spends far more time in the external world than I would have anticipated. It seems like an easy workaround to keep the kids from scratching their heads too much, although maybe Docter doesn’t give enough credit to a child’s capacity to interpret abstractions. I think it would have made a more fulfilling story to severely limit or even eliminate all depictions of Riley and her parents, save for fleeting glimpses from inside the mind.

Nevertheless, every detail of the conceptual design is filled with wonder. It’s an incredible visual work. But that’s not all. The story and animation would by themselves have already made for a remarkable movie, but Pixar has never been content to just entertain with colors, sounds, and adventure. They have an edict to create works of lasting value that can be enjoyed again and again through adulthood as well as youth. Of course Inside Out lives up to and exceeds such expectations in the lesson that is hard-learned by Joy as she continually snubs Sadness and insists that she remain inside an arbitrary circle, not touch anything, and remain in memory storage while Joy goes back to the control room to “fix” Riley. The point is that Riley is not an object in need of fixing. She is a human being and part of being human is having complex and varied emotions – yes, sometimes that means being sad. Human beings are not just a conglomeration of memories, but of the emotions connected with those memories. Pain and tragedy are a part of life and a significant part of the maturation process into teenage and adulthood. Riley can’t actually develop her personality beyond the simplicity of Goofball, Family, and Hockey Islands without hurtful memories. There is a similarity in the lesson learned here to that of both Toy Story 2 and Toy Story 3 which were about what it means to be left behind by someone who is growing up and moving on. Woody, Buzz, and the rest of the toys in Andy’s life have to go into the fire before they can become whole again and accept a new life with a new child. Similarly, Joy learns the importance of not being the only crucial actor in Riley’s life, but of sharing her power (perhaps not equally) with the other emotions.

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