Pixar is back in peak form with the endlessly clever and sneakily powerful 'Inside Out'
Inside Out Walt Disney Studios
Director: Pete Docter (co-director: Ronaldo Del Carmen)
Screenplay: Meg LeFauve, Josh Cooley and Pete Docter
Starring: The voices of Amy Poehler, Phyllis Smith, Lewis Black, Kaitlyn Dias, Bill Hader, Mindy Kaling, Richard Kind, Diane Lane and Kyle MacLachlan
Rated PG / 1 hour, 34 minutes
June 19, 2015
(out of four)
Don't let the premise of Inside Out fool you. Yes, it would be easy, even natural, to assume that a movie whose five central characters each represent one specific emotion would have an ultimately simplistic take on human emotion. On the contrary: one of its most impressive achievements (among many) is that it is explicitly about emotional complexity, and steadfastly refuses to treat those emotional avatars as simple ideas or easy answers.
Remarkably, despite a setup built on the foundation of emotions as segregated, disparate entities, it makes the case for them as codependent fragments of a harmonious whole. There are no good feelings or bad feelings or single-serving feelings; each one - Joy, Sadness, Fear, Anger and Disgust, and all the peripheral emotions they encompass - modifies and offsets the others, but they are all indispensable.
Together, they make up Riley (Kaitlyn Dias), an 11-year-old girl struggling with her family's move to San Francisco from her beloved Minnesota. Joy (Amy Poehler) heads up the command center of her brain and, naturally, her entire motivation is to make, and keep, Riley happy, whatever the situation. Her four cohorts keep Joy in check (more, at times, than she's willing to admit), but ultimately they all have the same goal in mind. At the root of the film's brilliance (and wisdom) is the clever interplay between these five figures, all of whom are singularly irrational but designed to balance each other out. And they do just that - at least, until a crisis sets in as both Joy and Sadness (voiced by The Office's Phyllis Smith) find themselves lost in Riley's subconscious, leaving only Fear (Bill Hader), Disgust (Mindy Kaling) and Anger (Lewis Black, because who else?) in control.
The script, which director Pete Docter co-authored with Meg LeFauve and Josh Cooley, takes on deliberately familiar childhood dilemmas and captures them in all their raw emotional volatility. A move across the country. Leaving all your old friends behind. A new school where you don't know anyone. The feeling of being ignored by preoccupied parents. Burgeoning thoughts of, or flirtations with, adolescent rebellion. And, in a general sense, the difficulty of accepting change, in all its forms. The film takes all of these elements and finds an accessibly streamlined visual and narrative approach, but Riley's emotional combustibility comes from a brutally honest place.
Joy is the heroic, type-A center of "our girl"'s emotional makeup (and boy does Amy Poehler nail it), but she's also so single-minded in her desire to make Riley happy that she often fails to appreciate the importance of the other four emotions - most notably Sadness, who's considered the black sheep of the group (she's not allowed to touch the happy memories, lest she turn them irreversibly sad), without Joy realizing that Sadness is where Riley's empathy comes from, and in fact is one of the unwitting causes of so much of the joy that Joy provides.
Perhaps it seems too obvious to praise a film for acknowledging the strange emotional depths of the human brain, but it's a lesson surprisingly few of them have learned. It's a treasure to see something like Inside Out that understands the value inherent in emotions in general, not just the "good" ones. As someone who once dabbled in the Angry Young Man phase and was often told those emotions were inherently bad and/or destructive, I can't help but appreciate the thoughtful way this movie acknowledges the genuinely cathartic and even transformative power that anger (or, in this case, Anger) can have. Righteous indignation - which seems to be the default mode of Lewis Black's personification of the character - certainly has its place. (Just as long as he's not completely running the show.)
Of course, all this emotional depth isn't Inside Out's only virtue. Here, the mind is a spectacular virtual playground that Docter and his team of animators bring ingeniously to life. The filmmakers structure much of the film like a road movie - with Joy and Sadness as the mismatched buddy duo - which allows them to go through incarnations of all kinds of areas of the brain. There's nothing I enjoy more than watching a filmmaker's imagination run wild, and that's certainly the case here - whether it's seeing the emotions get stuck in Abstract Thought (my favorite visual sequence), or stumbling onto a faux studio lot ("Dream Productions") where Riley's dreams and nightmares are created, or finding two separate boxes - one marked "Facts," the other "Opinions" - and remarking that the two are conspicuously interchangeable, Inside Out's subconscious constructions are endlessly inventive.
The two key pieces introduced early on are memories themselves - glowing orbs that constantly roll into Riley's subconscious throughout each day, and which are visually consistent with the emotion(s) they align with - and the Islands of Personality, which correspond with the most important things that define Riley (her family, her honesty, her "goofball" sense of humor, her love of hockey, etc). But the deeper we go, the more the film gets to explore its conception of those things - and even drop in several doses of the absurd, like when we run into a pair of memory custodians (who are emptying out the fading or unimportant memories) who decide to send a memory of an annoying jingle from a gum commercial up to the forefront of Riley's brain - solely as a mischievous (cruel?) lark. It's funny (and remains one of the movie's best running gags) because it's the best explanation yet of why those stupid commercial jingles pop into all our heads at the most random of moments.
Then there's Bing Bong (voiced by Richard Kind), Riley's imaginary friend from her toddler years, a surreal combination of elephant, cotton candy, cat, hobo and vaudeville entertainer, who's been floating around in the back of her mind for years before Joy and Sadness happen upon him while searching for a way back to the command center (where Fear, Disgust and Anger are unintentionally wreaking havoc).
And hovering below it all is the abyss, where memories go to die, forever. Considering this is a Pete Docter film, it should come as no surprise that memory itself is such a powerful component, and used to both ecstatic and devastating effect. After all, this is the man who gave us the "Married Life" montage in Up, the single greatest sequence that Pixar has ever produced - and the single most emotionally rich. His newest effort is in the same territory, and once again it's the character's memories that put so much of the film's emotional architecture in perspective. I think one of the reasons for the power of Docter's conjured memories, in both this movie and Up, is their deceptive simplicity. He has a remarkable command of classic cinematic language, and he uses that language to create seemingly straightforward moments that reveal, often suddenly, unexpected depths and truths. Inside Out is probably Pixar's most ambitious movie to date, and in crafting it (along with Ronaldo Del Carmen), Docter has proven himself compassionate to, and worthy of, each of the emotions he so energetically explores.