Tuesday, June 23, 2015

Review: Inside Out (2015)

Inside Out (2015)

Rated PG for mild thematic elements and some action

Pixar is back. Their latest film, Inside Out, was pretty much ninety-four minutes of them saying "yeah, the Cars movies kinda sucked and we made 'em solely for merchandising, so here's our way of making it up to you." It's a bright, cheerful, and hilarious family comedy, but much like the best kids' movies (including many of Pixar's own), it's able to recognize when it needs to not only slow down, but venture into some very dark places in order to properly tell its story. That style is especially appropriate here, in a film about a young girl's inner psyche and the "people" that live in her head, each representing facets of her personality and helping to guide her life. When this film's plot gets moving as things start to go wrong inside this girl's head, there's really no way Pixar could've possibly sugar-coated it: this is a film about depression, brought on in this girl by the uncertainty of moving across the country to a new home away from everything she ever knew. I could think of nobody better than Pixar on its A-game to tell this story, and fortunately, they gathered every bit of talent they had in both the writing and animation departments, as well as a great voice cast led by Amy Poehler, to make their best movie since Toy Story 3.

Our main characters are Joy (Poehler), Sadness (Phyllis Smith), Anger (Lewis Black), Fear (Bill Hader), and Disgust (Mindy Kaling), five beings that live inside the head of eleven-year-old Riley Anderson. Their jobs and personalities can be gathered straight away from their names -- the perky Joy helps keep Riley happy, the mopey, downbeat Sadness lives to help her through her more troubled moments (which, at this age, still means scraping one's knee or losing a hockey game), the literally hot-headed Anger manages her when she wants to lash out, the panicky Fear keeps her out of situations that can hurt her, and the snarky, catty Disgust likewise keeps her from getting sick, be it physically or through embarrassment. They've been carefully maintaining her mental state for eleven years now, but they -- and Riley -- face their greatest challenge yet when Riley's parents move from her Minnesota home to distant San Francisco. Joy's careful maintenance of Riley's mind as the unofficial "leader" of the group starts to falter due to Riley's uncertainty at her new situation, as she has no friends, she doesn't like the local food (who puts broccoli on pizza?), and she learns that her parents are having money problems as a result of the move. As a result, Sadness begins to grow more powerful and bold, to the point where she might permanently alter some of Riley's joyous "core memories", the central facets of her personality (in her case, family, friendship, honesty, hockey, and her goofball attitude) that are informed by pivotal moments in her life. Joy, of course, can't have this, and in her attempts to control Sadness, both of them wind up getting whisked out of their headquarters into the maze that is Long-Term Memory, leaving only Fear, Anger, and Disgust to run the show just as Riley is going through the most harrowing episode in her life. Now, Joy and Sadness must get back to headquarters before Riley descends into a crippling funk and does something potentially dangerous.

For all its color and humor, Inside Out is probably the most grounded film that Pixar has ever made. While the world inside Riley's head looks like typical Pixar, the world that Riley herself inhabits looks and feels truly real, with only the bare minimum of stylization to keep it all from falling into the uncanny valley. San Francisco is rendered with all the attention to detail you'd expect from the Bay Area folks at Pixar, feeling like a truly living, breathing world with a mix of both grit and awe-inspiring sights. It goes both ways, too; writer/director Pete Docter consulted with actual psychologists and professors for a lot of the abstract elements of Riley's brain and how it functions, with this article going into detail on the real-world neuroscience behind the film (and some of the artistic license it took). This all goes a long way in selling the consequences of what's happening in Riley's head, giving everything a firm rooting in something tangible. Even the genuinely funny jokes that happen in Riley-World, such as a running gag of an annoying commercial jingle that the workers in Long-Term Memory love to send up to headquarters as a prank, take on a darker meaning once you see Riley humming that jingle after going through a devastating experience. It's a much smaller and more personal film than anything that Pixar's made outside of Toy Story, but if anything, that only adds to the genuine emotional weight that it has. I wasn't lying up top when I said that, fundamentally (and without spoiling anything), this is a film about depression and coping with trauma and change, and it gets as profoundly messed-up as you'd expect a film with that subject matter to be (within the bounds of a PG rating, of course). It needs to go to those places, as it gives real consequences to the fantasy world that this film takes place in while reinforcing the harsh but otherwise powerful message that this film is built around.

That message here concerns the fact that, sometimes, it's okay to cry, and trying to be happy every waking moment can be a recipe for disaster. (Yeah, betcha didn't see that coming from Disney, huh?) For all her cheer and perkiness, Joy is perhaps the closest thing this film has to a real villain, as it's mostly her mistakes, and especially her attempt to suppress Sadness and keep her away from anything important, that set off the disaster that kicks the plot into gear. The arc of the film concerns Joy slowly realizing that her attempts to control Riley, at the expense of the other four emotions, are doing lasting damage to Riley's mental, and eventually physical, well-being. Despite Joy's view of Sadness as nothing but a downer, that emotion has a genuine role to play in making Riley a well-rounded person, and sometimes, she should be allowed to take the reins rather than shoved off to the side. The amazing voice cast goes a long way in selling their characters and the story, with Amy Poehler and Phyllis Smith getting the most time to shine as Joy and Sadness, along with Richard Kind stealing the show as Riley's all-but-forgotten imaginary friend Bing Bong. Mindy Kaling, Lewis Black, and Bill Hader mostly play comic relief up in headquarters as they bumble their way through Riley's life, but that's not to say they don't do their jobs amazingly well.

Which brings me to my last point: like many of the best animated films, this film is not only smart and deep, but it has a great sense of humor and a ton of funny jokes. In Riley's Imagination Land, we see how her imagination has evolved from fluffy clouds, gingerbread houses, and unicorns to the "perfect boyfriend" now that she's an adolescent girl on the verge of puberty. Whenever Anger is on screen, you can practically hear all the curse words that would be spewing out of Lewis Black's mouth if this weren't a kids' movie, as he looks longingly at the section of the control panel devoted to the cusses Riley's learned. In a number of cutaway scenes, we see that everyone has their own little voices in their head, each of them slightly different depending on the person; we see that Riley's mom, for instance, still longs for that hunky Brazilian man she met before her current husband, while a disgruntled bus driver is completely dominated by Anger. Nearly all the jokes hit their mark dead-on, and most importantly, they remain family-friendly without becoming juvenile. No matter your age, you will laugh with this movie, hard.

Score: 5 out of 5

Pixar's made up for their recent slump and then some with the best animated movie and the best family film of the year, and up there with Spy as quite possibly the best comedy as well. Don't have kids? Doesn't matter. Go see it.

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