Wednesday, June 24, 2015
Inside Out (***)
Directed by Pete Docter and Ronaldo Del Carmen
The preciousness of Pixar Studios - the wholly brilliant subgroup of Disney Films that's created several classics, including WALL-E and The Incredibles - is nothing new. It's one thing for a single director to possess the talent to produce films that consistently entertain an audience with intelligent filmmaking. To have an entire studio with a seemingly endless supply of talent frequently pumping out material of superior quality is starting to feel rarer by the day. We complain that major studios are no longer interested in smart movies for adults, and that's true, but Pixar is continuously making smart movies for children, and it's often the best thing that adults get to see as well. Inside Out is Pixar's first wholly original movie since 2012's Brave; only Monsters University - the sequel to 2001's Monsters, Inc. - stands between the two. The usually prolific studio slowed down a tinge, and were even surpassed for a short moment by their parent company, Walt Disney Animation, when 2013's Frozen ruled the box office and the air waves, to become the film studio's biggest moneymaker in a good while. Other animation studios have upped their game, recognizing that audiences have clung to Pixar's top-notch screenwriting and cinematic ambitions. It's possible that Pixar, the former trailblazing behemoth, has become just one of many animation studios producing quality content. Inside Out shows that they're still up to the challenge.
The films of Pixar are, first and foremost, films for kids. They usually have a way of tapping into the life of American children in a way that is so well thought out that even adults feel compelled by the storytelling. Sometimes, though, like in the case of The Incredibles or Up, they're just making films for adults wrapped in sugary candy coating that kids can also enjoy. This is the true versatility of this studio. They do not bound themselves by the tradition that so many child-friendly companies do. They trust that kids will understand, and if they don't, they know that their parents will at least appreciate the effort. Inside Out is children's film about adolescence. I can't think of a teenager who'd be willing to sit through this movie, unless they have previous connections from their love of other Pixar movies. It is Pixar's most unadulterated kid-friendly film since the Cars series, but this film deals with a lot of issues that the young tikes won't truly understand for a few years. The film is about 11-year-old Riley (Kaitlyn Dias), a young Midwesterner and hockey fanatic who loves her two parents (Diane Lane and Kyle MacLachlan), and the life that they've made in Minnesota. But when Riley's father gets a new job that sends them all the way to San Francisco, we are introduced to the characters that Inside Out is truly about: the five emotions who do the grunt work in building her personality.
Inside Riley's mind, her personality is contained and controlled by these central characters: there's Joy (Amy Poehler), the plucky, unofficial leader wearing a cropped haircut and a Tinkerbell outfit; there's Fear (Bill Hader), a skinny neurotic; Anger (Lewis Black), a short, red-bodied temper tantrum who can shoot flames out of the top of his head; Disgust (Mindy Kaling), a vain fashionista who's fond of making Riley spit out her vegetables during dinner; and finally Sadness (Phyllis Smith), a gloomy, turtleneck-wearing bummer who's beginning to ponder her true place amongst the other, more prominent emotions. The five have worked together throughout Riley's childhood to craft a very happy decade, and have accomplished a whole lot in the way of making friends, fostering a talent for the sport of hockey, and keeping the family unit lovingly intact. Joy loves micromanaging all of their tasks, and why shouldn't she? The other emotions understand that Joy is the main figure here, and she needs precious little help in running Riley's overall happy life. But moving to San Francisco presents a litany of issues that Joy has not had to deal with before, suddenly she's finding it harder to navigate around the things that can possibly upset her favorite girl. On her first day of school, when called in front of the class to introduce herself, Fear rightly freaks out and despite the efforts of Joy, Sadness comes in and disrupts the moment, leaving Riley to cry in front of her new classmates. The event has a devastating effect on Riley's ability to acquiesce to her new home.
Riley's parents are too busy to mind Riley's emotional overhaul - the father's new job is starting to seem dicier than he originally thought, and the mother seems preoccupied with a moving truck that still hasn't arrived. When Joy and Sadness are accidentally shot out of headquarters and sent deep into Riley's long-term memory, the ill-equipped trio of Disgust, Fear and Anger are left to operate during this particularly tumultuous time. As they do their best to hold the fort, Joy and Sadness try desperately to find their way back to headquarters. They get some assistance from Riley's long forgotten imaginary friend, Bing Bong (expertly voiced by Richard Kind), a pink, bipedal elephant in a clown costume. Bing Bong has been hanging out in the depths of Riley's memory, lazing around amongst the more laborious aspects of Riley's mind. Joy, hampered by Sadness' overall grim attitude, tries to stay positive while attempting to return to headquarters to stop Riley from becoming too despondent in her current situation. Along the way, they stand in on the studio set that is Riley's dreams and also venture through the dangerous world of Riley's subconscious, hoping to catch a ride on the Train of Thought back to home. Bing Bong does his best to help them in his most unorthodox way, showing why Riley may have buried him in the first place.
Inside Out isn't as substantial as some of Pixar's previous work, but it's the most emotional film they've released since Up in 2009 (which was directed by Pete Docter, who also made this film). That film was, in part, about coming to grips with your own life as you approach the end of it. Inside Out takes a similar narrative route to the process of prepubescence. Up was the more mature film, it had the benefit of tracing back through an entire life of a character. Inside Out is working with a lot less here and sometimes the thinness shows. It goes back to the well at various moments to the same visual gags for recycled laughs. Luckily for us, these gags are startlingly funny in and of themselves. When Riley's unmanned temper leads to a spat with her two parents at the dinner table, the film cuts into the emotional headquarters of the two parents. Their five-person emotional teams are a lot more heteronormative - adult life has stunted the uniqueness of their emotions - but the film uses this moment to make good jokes about the dynamics of marriage and to comment on the stereotypes of gender. Even for throwaway jokes, these are goodies. A good amount of the film's action deals with Joy and Sadness trying desperately to get back to headquarters with the occasional help from Bing Bong. The action pieces are sharp, entertaining, and even at certain moments suspenseful, and do a good job of positioning the film's central conflict: the battle between Joy's passive-aggressive politeness and Sadness' resigned melancholy.
It's in this storyline that the voice work really shines. As Bing Bong, Richard Kind really pushes the ho-hum niceties of the absurd imaginary friend, while Poehler does a variation on Leslie Knope to create the cheerleading energy of Joy. Phyllis Smith's work as Sadness, though, is the true film-stealing part. Smith is most commonly known for playing Phyllis on the American version of The Office, and it's her homeiness that really brings out the true downtrodden core at the center of Sadness' resignation, without making her totally pathetic. Sadness could have gotten pretty stale pretty quickly, but the film's script and Smith's vocal performance realize what this character has to offer and when that realization is made. the film truly begins to sore. Inside Out is a terrific film that has the bonus of explaining difficult concepts of growing up to kids who may have no idea, in a way that makes the medicine go down easily. Pete Docter has proven to be a master at conjuring emotion, which is a nice way of saying that all his films are tearjerkers. Inside Out is no different, but like all of Docter's films, their emotion is rooted in something real. Pixar's best films are quite philosophical about existence, love and life. Inside Out is literally a film about emotion, with emotions as the main characters, and Docter's ability to display that reality without cheapening it with contrivance is a real achievement, indeed.