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Pixar Sundays: Inside Out (2015)


I've already reviewed Inside Out on this blog, so this week’s entry may be redundant. But on the other hand, that review’s over two years old and was written as a basic newspaper review. No doubt there’s plenty to add and expand upon looking at it more in-depth. And in fact, Inside Out is a movie that benefits by being discussed without filters and spoiler warnings, as there’s so much creativity and so many ideas being addressed. It was the movie that brought Pixar out of its slump (at least temporarily), being not only better than their last three movies combined, but one of the best animated movies in years, and one of Pixar’s highest watermarks.
The film centres on the personifications of various emotions running the mind of an eleven year old girl called Riley. But when Riley’s family moves across country from Minnesota to San Francisco, the emotions don’t know how to adapt. Things get worse when through an accident, Joy, Sadness, and all Riley’s core memories are ejected from her minds’ control room. As Anger, Fear, and Disgust are left driving her personality, Joy and Sadness navigate the annals of Riley’s mind, where they attempt to set the chaos right.
The set-up of this movie is brilliant! That’s not to say it’s wholly original -personifying feelings and concepts within the human body has been an avenue of psychological or personality jokes in films and television for years (there was even a bad 90’s sitcom called Hermans’ Head, based around it). But Inside Out fully makes the premise its own through the care with which it constructs its environment and relates its perceptions. All the details in how the mind works and where various concepts fit in are set up extraordinarily well. From the memory orbs to the imagination filter to the islands of personality, they’re all explained simply, and they all make sense. In addition to the emotions, so many mental constructs are both creative and intricately thought out. Like how dreams are created in a movie-making format, though nightmares are confined to a labyrinthine prison (of course the biggest of which is a psycho clown). Or showing what becomes of old memories, how ideas can completely take over the mind, and offering a fun explanation for how random jingles get caught in your head. This is a very well-written story and rich world by Pete Docter. Docter also directs, and easily outdoes his previous films in the sheer imagination, intelligence, and heart that is put into this entire story. But he also ensures there’s plenty of humour, as makes sense with subject matter such as this. Indeed any time I’ve seen the inner workings of someone’s mind conveyed through media before, it’s been for comedy. And it’s quite fun coming up with jokes about how the mind works. Inside Out proves this by maintaining a lot of hilarious moments in spite of dire circumstances and serious stakes. Like the memories that are chosen to dump, a mix-up of facts and opinions, or Riley’s imaginary Canadian boyfriend who would die for her. Then there are brilliantly funny detours, like the deconstructive journey through abstract thought, the insight into Riley’s parents’ heads (which is a bit out of sync for this internal story, but nonetheless funny and fascinating seeing who runs each respective mind), the subsequent series of end credits gags, and the dream sequence giving us Fear the cynical dream critic (“boo, pick a plot-line!”). This movie also has an unusual comfort with murdering clouds -it might just be Pixar’s funniest movie since the original Toy Story. The sight gags are great, but the dialogue stands out more, benefiting from the films’ cast of skilled comedians.
Amy Poehler is definitely one of the funniest celebrities working today and that shows in her portrayal of Joy as a peppy optimistic leader trying to maintain a positive attitude and control. Obviously her work as Leslie Knope made her ideal for this part, but Poehler also proves herself tremendously capable of dramatic weight, and more than that, is central to the films’ most affecting scenes. She imbues this concept of Joy with a defined character, complete with a drive and weaknesses; in fact most of the cast succeed at this. The Office’s Phyllis Smith is terrific as Sadness, the downtrodden but curious emotion no one likes, and as if Pixar doesn’t know how to cast perfectly by this choice, they give us Lewis Black as Anger! Lewis Black may actually be the personification of Anger, and he’s given plenty of great material to rage about, making his perhaps the most enjoyable performance in the movie. Bill Hader voices Fear with excellent energy and anxiety, and Mindy Kaling is suitably vain as Disgust. Though I have to say, her character isn’t quite as developed as the others, mostly owing to Disgust clearly being a much more specific emotion than Joy, Sadness, Anger, and Fear. But the movie needed a fifth, and for its purposes, she works. Riley’s voice actress, Kaitlyn Dias, does a great job vocalizing the range of emotional states her character exhibits throughout this movie. For someone whose every action is determined by the colourful characters inside her head, she manages to get across a lot of identity independently. Her parents are voiced by Kyle MacLachlan and Diane Lane (dad’s Anger interestingly voiced by Docter himself). And then of course there’s the scene-stealer of the movie, Richard Kind as Bing Bong -Riley’s cotton candy-elephant of a former imaginary friend, and Joy and Sadness’ guide through Riley’s mind. Kind is no stranger to Pixar, having been in both Cars movies, and was actually one of the better parts of A Bug’s Life. Without a doubt, this is his best performance, not only in Pixar, but in anything I’ve ever seen him in. With a voice like his, it’s hard to come off as emotionally resonant, but he does it. Not only that, but he creates the perfect image of lost childhood, as he yearns to play with Riley again, even though she’s long forgotten him. Because of this, he works as a sympathetic character, and earns Inside Out’s entry into Pixar’s hall of fame of Rip-Your-Heart-Out Moments, when down in the abyss of fading memories, he sacrifices himself so Joy can get out. Having allowed her to escape via his song-powered wagon-rocket he’d wanted to experience with Riley, he tells Joy as he’s evaporating to “take her to the moon for me” which Kind delivers with a sombreness that’s nary to leave a dry eye in the house.
The tear-jerking stuff however is pretty standard for Pixar. But what makes Inside Out amazing is how it understands and relates the complexity of emotions in such an inventive and ingenious way. This extends to details, like how the aspects of personality develop over time, and thus there are more personality islands at the end of the film than at the beginning. But in a deeper sense, it captures the array of conflict within the mind of a child. There are multiple scenes where the various emotions are fighting over control because they all have something to say or react to, and it’s so clearly symbolic. Feelings are a complicated thing, and there are times when it’s not just one emotion steering the ship as it were. It was a very smart idea to centre the conflict of this movie around a big move, because as I and many others can attest from first-hand experience, there’s no more emotionally trying a change in a childs’ life. And every decision and response from the emotions feels like genuine reasoning for an eleven year old kid, like her reaction to local broccoli pizza, or her jealousy over her best friend making a new friend in her absence. So naturally, such is the case with Anger’s logic that because all of Riley’s best memories are in Minnesota, the solution to their problems must be to run away back there. While Riley’s attempt isn’t fraught with external danger, it does impart the recklessness of decisions made out of anger and fear (disgust I guess too?).
This movie provides kids a way of rationalizing their emotional states. Obviously they don’t take it literally, but through metaphor it does a downright genius job of interpreting the balance of emotions, where they come from, their impact on memories and personality, and the duality of happiness and sadness. The big revelation of the film is when Joy, who’s constantly wanted to keep Riley happy through a positive attitude and looking on the bright side, discovers that one of her core joyful memories was directly a consequence of a sad moment in her life. This and an earlier scene, where Sadness talks to Bing Bong after losing his rocket, reinforces the necessity of sadness. As demonstrated, trying to be happy and positive isn’t always the right answer to an emotional blow. Sometimes you just need to be sad, and it’s perfectly okay. Joy tries ignoring negative things. She ostracises Sadness in particular, whom she doesn’t understand, keeping her in a circle, trying to make her like herself, and freaking out over sad memories and Sadness’ strange ability to unintentionally turn happy memories with a touch. She even outright abandons Sadness at one point, not out of ill will, but clearly in believing she’s not important to Riley. This isn’t healthy though, and it’s ultimately the central theme of Inside Out. People need sadness, as much as they need joy, anger, fear, and even disgust to be emotionally stable. They’re necessary to who we are and how we grow. And, as this movie brilliantly visualized, one can often come as a direct by-product of another. Hell, these are lessons that we as adults sometimes need reminding of. There are times where we’re guilty of trying to keep a positive attitude, when we really should address a pent up sadness or anger. The reverse is true as well, if we’re in a stupor, it’s necessary to remind ourselves of something happy in our lives. Sadness saves the day in the end by allowing Riley to cry out all her feelings to her parents, and their empathy and love gives the moment the perfect little bit of Joy.
The music by Michael Giacchino, I feel I also have to emphasize, is really good. It’s one of the most strikingly nice and soothing musical motifs from any Pixar film. It’s atmosphere is superb, a great underscore to silent evocative moments, but also lively and intense where it needs to be. The use of echo throughout this soundtrack really illustrates the expanse of the mind as well. The animation of course is very good, Docter making it more colourful than Monsters Inc. or Up, and certainly more vibrant. There are soft edges to each of the emotions, distinguishing them nicely from the people they inhabit. The flexible shapes and sizes are a nice touch (it only makes sense that Anger would have a Napoleon Complex). There’s nothing especially new to the animation, apart from just the general creativity of the whole film, but that’s no big deal; the standards from Pixar having been pretty consistent lately. Even Monsters University looked good.
Inside Out was my favourite movie of 2015, and to be honest, it’s my favourite movie from Pixar. I certainly feel its their most intelligent and ambitious film to date, conveying significant themes on the nature and complexity of emotions in an accessible but mature way; while also being unbelievably clever in its boundless imagination, consistently funny in its talented cast and visual humour, and beautifully emotional in how it connects with our own understanding and personal reflectiveness. In recent years, few animated movies, certainly from major studios, have so fervently captured a concept and made the most of it. Inside Out is an instant classic, as of 2017, Pixar’s single greatest unsung success. And while it’s not the first time the mind has been personified on film, it’s completely defined that idea on film from now on.

I’m gonna be honest and say I think Lava is only okay. Everyone was praising this short like crazy when Inside Out came out, but I just didn’t think it was something remarkable. The rare Pixar short with dialogue, or lyrics in this case, it’s about a Pacific island volcano singing a love ballad to the ocean until a mate rises from the seabed. But facing away from him and he being extinguished after ages of waiting, she doesn’t notice him. Eventually however, the power of love skyrockets him back above the surface and the two volcanoes are united at last. The animation is really great, in fact it kind of gave us a sneak preview of the breathtaking visuals of Moana. The singer, Kuana Torres Kahele has a really nice voice too, and I like the ukulele music. However the song isn’t all that impressive and the constant “lava” wordplay is just way too corny. It’s cute the first time, but quickly falls into the death trap of bad puns. It could have been worse, considering the last musical short was Boundin’, but it does suffer one of the same problems. The Pixar shorts succeed when they’re silent, relying on visuals over dialogue or lyrics to tell a story. And Lava just didn’t quite earn that split from the norm.

Next Week: The Good Dinosaur (2015)

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