Friday, August 28, 2015

Inside Out (2015)

At the peak of its powers last decade, Pixar Animation Studios could crank out films with charmingly simple stories that would entertain kids while packing an emotional wallop for adults. Films like The Incredibles, Ratatouille, Wall-E, and Up were smart, sophisticated family movies that could make boatloads of money for parent company Disney while also routinely showing up in the upper echelons of year-end "best of" lists. At the turn of the decade, the rapturous reception for their films cooled significantly. A major reason for this was the company's move away from original stories toward sequels to their previous hits; three of their previous four films had been sequels, and more have been announced since then. But there's also been rumors of turmoil within the creative team: early stalwarts like Brad Bird (The Incredibles, Ratatouille) and Andrew Stanton (Finding Nemo, Wall-E) have moved on to live-action filmmaking, while the company's other 2015 release, The Good Dinosaur, has undergone several changes in the director's chair and has even replaced its entire voice cast. Needless to say, that sterling winning streak has a bit more tarnish on it.

I open with this bit about the company's recent woes because their latest, Inside Out, is a reminder of what the company's creative team can do when all goes right. The film takes place inside the mind of Riley (voice of Kaitlyn Dias), where her five core emotions - Joy (Amy Poehler), Sadness (Phyllis Smith), Fear (Bill Hader), Disgust (Mindy Kaling), and Anger (Lewis Black) - guide her through her day and help her create memories. Joy is by far the most dominant, proud of her accomplishments in making Riley's life exciting. But when Riley and her family have to move from their Minnesota home to San Francisco, she has trouble adjusting, just as Sadness tries to contribute more to the emotions' group effort. Joy and Sadness end up getting lost outside of Mission Control, and have to find their way back before Riley's personality is altered forever.

Hailing from the directing team of veteran Pete Docter (Up) and first-timer Ronaldo Del Carmen (a former animator), Inside Out displays the very best that an animated film has to offer: indelible performances, inspired world-building, and a surprisingly complex message about emotional health that is outright progressive for an ostensible children's movie.

More after the jump.

First things first, the easiest thing to appreciate about the film is how much work the creative team put into bringing the human mind to life. Making intangible concepts into something literal is a tough challenge, yet the animation team does so with inventiveness and silliness. For example, while memories are made to look like snow globes in the color of the emotion that created them (mostly yellow, thanks to Joy), the world outside of Mission Control is designed to, at a distance, look like the folds of the cerebrum. Long-term memory is a labyrinth of old memories, dreams originate from a studio that resembles a Hollywood backlot, and - best of all - there's a literal train of thought. Even the character designs are remarkable: the five emotions have distinct shapes, yet when the camera is close enough to them, it's evident that they have effervescent edges, belying their conceptual nature. And speaking of, one of the film's truly standout sequences finds a trio of characters taking a shortcut through "abstract thought," yielding a scene that's brilliant in both concept and execution.

The heart of the film, though, is the touching narrative assisted by the terrific performances. With a story by Docter and Del Carmen and a screenplay by Docter and first-time feature writers Josh Cooley and Meg LeFauve, the film is rich in emotional honesty with stakes that feel earned. The film's middle act, as Joy and Sadness are guided by Riley's since-forgotten imaginary friend Bing Bong (voice of Richard Kind), packs a real wallop, rendering even the thought of Bing Bong to a puddle of tears. For kids, it's a sad moment in the film. For adults, it's a reminder of the loss of childhood and the comforts we used to find in our earliest years before life became infinitely more messy and complicated.

To their credit, the performers are all aces. Hader, Kaling, and Black are all perfect voices for their respective emotions, and their ramshackle chemistry lends their scenes some welcome humor. Kind has always been a reliable presence, both comedically and dramatically, and his performance as Bing Bong makes the best of both skill sets. Poehler has built a reputation of playing relentlessly cheerful characters like Leslie Knope on Parks & Recreation, and she's able to spin that oppressive optimism into genuine pathos here as Joy. But the true breakout here is Smith, previously best known for playing Phyllis on the American version of The Office. In Sadness, she's able to provide gravitas and gentle humor, turning the character from buzzkill to misunderstood hero. She's the reason that the film's beautiful message - sometimes, it's okay to be sad - works so magnificently. She runs away with the film without ever really raising her voice above a whisper.

Of course, all of the brilliant emotional texture doesn't mean the film isn't funny. After all, this is a film that gives time to show what's going on in other characters' heads as well (stay through the credits for a spot-on cat joke), as well as a hilariously accurate running gag about annoying jingles. But that this film is able to tell such rich, fresh jokes and provide an emotional punch that is not only positive but wonderfully refreshing? Regardless of whether or not Pixar has truly returned to form, there's no denying that Inside Out is a miracle of a movie. There are very few other filmmakers or studios who could pull of something like this. A+

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