Saturday, June 27, 2015

Review - Inside Out

Leave it to Pixar – the animation haven that made us believe a rat could cook, and a house could fly, and a robot could fall in love – to make their latest brainchild... well, the brain of a child. Or more specifically, the feelings that make it tick.
As such, Inside Out is the studio's most ambitious concept to date, and also one of its greatest triumphs. This wonderful invention of cinema does more than make you laugh and cry (and it will make you do both); It blithely examines the human condition and what it finds is deceptively profound.

Riley Anderson (voiced by Kaitlyn Diaz) is a perfectly normal, perfectly happy 11-year-old girl. Her early life growing up in Minnesota may seem a bit ordinary on the outside, but her gray matter is anything but gray. Pixar represents it as a bubblegum-tinted world of pure imagination, overseen by the five core emotions – Joy, Sadness, Fear, Disgust, and Anger – that literally push her buttons from a command booth in her frontal lobe.
Giving voice to these tiny balls of neurological energy are a quintet of TV comedians who would seem almost too perfectly typecast in a lesser film. It's to their (and the animators') enormous credit that we never get distracted trying to picture the actor behind the caricature.

There's ranting stand-up comic Lewis Black as Anger, SNL's spastic Bill Hader as Fear, chic chick Mindy Kaling (The Mindy Project) as Disgust, The Office's resident buzzkill Phyllis Smith – adorably dour as Sadness – and Amy Poeller as Joy, reincarnating her hopelessly optimistic Lesley Knope from Parks and Rec in luminous cartoon form.

They bandy for control over young Riley's reactions to every sensation, albeit with jocular repartee. Up to this point, Joy has made herself the boss, ensuring that the majority of Riley's memories (which take the form of glowing orbs) are happy ones. She's extra protective of Riley's “core memories”; Those special moments from her formative years that power her personality.

But the mind hive is thrown for a loop when Riley's parents (Diane Lane and Kyle MacLachlan) uproot her and move to San Francisco. Joy doggedly avows to band-aid this disagreeable change with her Pollyanna cheer – and Riley continues to wear a smile – until a disastrous day at school ends up with Joy and Sadness being sucked out of headquarters and dumped in the labyrinth of Riley's long term memory. The ill-suited Anger, Disgust and Fear are left to navigate Riley through her crisis, while Joy and Sadness race back to HQ, desperate to upright the kid's floundering mood.
Director Pete Docter (who shares writing credit with Ronnie del Carmen, Meg LeFauve and Josh Cooley) has always had a knack for striking just the right balance between mile-a-minute comedy and quiet poignancy, as demonstrated in Monsters, Inc. and his Oscar-winning Up. But even those fine films are topped by Inside Out, with its heightened emotion, clever sight gags and swift one-liners.

“Ugh, these facts and opinions all look so similar,” Joy remarks after spilling a crate of those commonly confused notions while on board the Train of Thought, whose tracks are constantly leading it in random directions (naturally). You don't need a psych degree to get most of the jokes, but I'll bet it helps. Better read up on your Jung and Van Doesburg for the scene in the Abstract Thought Chamber, probably the most academically hilarious bit Pixar has ever done.

There are also plenty of laughs for the tots, who may be a bit more tolerant of Riley's imaginary friend Bing Bong (Richard Kind) than their parents will. But unless you're the sort of adult who's allowed every one of your glowing childhood memory orbs to fade into gray dust, you'll find it hard not to grin at even the goofiest shtick. These include side-trips into the wish fulfilling Imagination Land and a cheesy dream-generating TV studio called Dream Productions (I suppose calling it “Dream Works” would have been a bit mean).

In truth, Inside Out doesn't boast the most finessed narrative we've seen from Pixar. A critical eye can easily spot the fault lines in the film's pacing, stranding a manic second act between a smile-lit opening and a tear-soaked finish. But such a discerning gaze also reveals the wealth of thoughtful details that Docter and his think tank of writers have included; Like how the terrain of Riley's vast mindscape resembles magnified brain tissue, or how the colours on her clothes slyly match whichever emotions are currently dominating her mental switchboard.
The discerning ear is rewarded as well. Michael Giacchino, even without a concrete setting – say, a Parisian restaurant or a floating house – to inspire his music, once again proves he is among the most versatile composers in the biz.
His score is as beautifully aeriform as the headspace it aims to evoke, using tubular tones and delicate chimes to underlie instruments specific to each emotion.

It all makes for a grand old time at the movies, and yet Inside Out is more special than that because of its potent message about mental health. In a marvelous subversion of the standards of mainstream animation, it crouches down and explains to children, at their level, that it's okay – nay, important – to embrace all of life's feelings. Even an unpleasant one such as sadness, for it can strengthen the bonds with those we love.

That these insights are disguised as kid-friendly viewing doesn't make them any less pertinent. Nor does it mean they apply only to developing youngsters.

Reportedly, Docter was inspired to make the film when his own daughter reached that turbulent age of emotional maturation. Without giving too much away, there comes a moment (the 'depths of despair moment' for those familiar with Pixar's formula) when we finally glimpse the stealth movie hidden within this candy-coloured summer flick; The one that's as much about the joy and sadness of parenthood as it is about the joy and sadness of adolescence.
In this moment, for 90 seconds or so, the facial animation and vocal performance are so achingly acute that we can actually feel the filmmaker in place of the character – A parent lamenting the loss of their child's simplistic bliss. Even the most joyful of their infant memories fade, but to be replaced by feelings that are in turn richer, more complex, and necessary for their growth as human beings.

It's in this moment that Inside Out transcends high caliber entertainment,
and becomes high art.

**** out of ****

4 comments:

  1. I loved it. Some of Pixar's most clever gags and tearjerking moments are here (I cried more at this movie than in Up and Toy Story 3 combined!), all with wonderful vocal performances, beautiful animation and a highly important lesson for kids and adults. Easily in my Top 5 favourite Pixar films! I will NEVER think of my emotions the same way again.

    Here's my review: http://letterboxd.com/tyman21/film/inside-out-2015/

    Simply put, It's Inside Out-standing, and I really en-joyed it. No need for sadness, because Pixar's back! (Sorry, I have like a million of them.)

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  2. How does this rank with the other pixar films?

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    1. Top five to be sure, but where exactly I'll need more time and subsequent viewings to figure out.

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  3. Saw this last week and I absolutely loved it! It was not only hilarious, but it made me bawl towards the end. Plus, the voice acting was very three-dimensional and its storytelling is beautifully nuanced. Hopefully, it'll not only be in the running for Best Animated Feature, but Best Picture as well.

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