Animated Film Review 2015: "Inside Out" (Written & Directed by Pete Docter, Amy Poehler, Lewis Black, Mindy Kaling, etc.
The Docter strikes again! Pete Docter, virtuoso helmer of Disney/Pixar's 2010 feature "Up" has returned with a lightning-rod of a movie that most assuredly puts Pixar back in everyone's good graces. After a few lower tier entries in the forms of "Monsters University" and especially the certifiably rotten "Cars 2", this feature, "Inside Out" features a boundless premise that confirms it as Pixar's most unique and universally relatable story since the last "Toy Story" film. In fact, to that end, the parallels between both movies are undeniable and mirror each other thematically and both have a very bold and no holds barred sense of adventure.
So, what makes "Inside Out" so captivating and easy to rank it at the top of the list of Pixar's best? For one thing, this movie places emphasis on character like never before. As we peek inside the mind of the film's protagonist - 11 year old Riley - who finds her life uprooted from her idyllic existence in Minnesota with her adoring parents and moved to the bustling and cold-shouldered City of Angels - the framing device is seeing how important and crucial emotions are to our everyday life. Riley's emotions are personified in five very different ways. The leader of the pack is Joy, played with immense frivolity by "Parks and Recreation" star Amy Poehler. Joy is introduced as Riley's very first emotion as a newborn but, as Riley begins to grow other emotions start crowding her space and making Joy's day to day operations of trying to keep Riley genuinely happy all the more taxing,. Next to enter is Sadness, played with a dry and sardonic wit by the U.S version of "The Office" Phyllis Smith. Sadness can't help but be sad and her utter aimlessness causes alarming butting of heads between her and Joy since they are practically opposites. Next comes SNL alum Bill Hader's Fear who, like Sadness, hasn't mastered the ability to channel himself. The functional roles of both Sadness and Fear exist to signal that change must come and that the best possible thing one can do to grapple with change and growth is to adapt to it. It is a hard-won realization by these two characters and despite their constant worry that they have no purpose, the two represent the most fleshed-out of the two emotions on the spectrum. His role, as displayed in the film, is to prevent Riley from making careless or dangerous choices by instilling dread in her to make her unwilling to do unsafe things. Rounding out the principal emotions is Lewis Black's flaming hot-tempered Anger and "The Mindy Project" creator, writer and star Mindy Kaling's Disgust. Both of these more extreme emotions also serve their purpose with Black's Anger emboldening Riley to rebel and defend herself and Kaling's Disgust to "prevent Riley from killing herself". Watching these emotions vie for control of the control center is a laugh-a-minute ride of well-placed one-liners, magnificently rendered sight gags and more than a few tearjerkers to keep the audience in on everything.
The comparisons between this film and the "Toy Story" franchise are undeniable. Both deal with the understanding of and the having to cope with losing remnants of one's childhood. Toy Story allowed for us to see that over the course of three movies, each one more mature and emotional than the last depicted the protagonist Andy as having to disregard his childhood toy companions. Toy Story 3 presents this most accurately by having the plot revolve around Andy shipping off to his first year of college as he prepares to chart a new chapter in his life devoid of the simple and care-free privileges of being doted on sans adult responsibility. Also in Toy Story 3, Andy's mom becomes more of a presence in the film and helps to egg him on toward organizing and packing up everything he'd rather not keep. Likewise, Riley's mom and dad are shoe-horned into relocating because her dad takes on a new job and needs to be closer to it to commute better. Riley's intricate internal emotions and personality begin to shift and take a sharp nosedive with Sadness accidentally setting in motion crippling events by contaminating Riley's core memories. Pretty soon, the film shifts into a race-against-time potboiler thriller that places Joy at the forefront and the only one of the five emotions able to save Riley and keep her from a deep depression. Toy Story's Andy and Riley are matched up quite nicely and their depictions appear to overlap in a number of ways.
The question looms - What does a movie like "Inside Out" teach us about the importance of emotional monitoring? Moreover, does it make commentary about mental illness and childhood susceptibility? It appears that unlike Pixar's last two recent features, this flick actually represents something larger than itself and its yearning to transmit something more integral than flash and style. Docter's last feature "Up" also made pointed statements about love and loss and finding the will to press on in the face of tragedy and adversity. "Inside Out" stands out as Pixar's most accessible film that can appeal to the younger set while also offering plenty for adults to relish in as well. There's even a "Chinatown" reference! This film also presents a self-awareness and clarity of purpose in every frame. It does get heartbreaking though so make sure to pack along extra tissues. At one point, Riley's longtime imaginary friend Bing Bong, a hybrid animal, disappears by evaporating into her subconscious which allows Joy to successfully pilot herself back to the command center and do damage control with the influx of sad memories. All of these events unfold so sharply and translate core values that both kids and their mentoring parents and role models ought to pass down.
One of the overarching ideas presented in the film, particularly toward the latter acts is the ongoing war between empathy and apathy. The emotion Sadness struggles to find her place within the crew of emotions and is portrayed with a sense of detachment and longing. Unbeknownst to it, though, is that Sadness is capable of guiding Riley toward empathic emotion which allows Riley to reconcile her state and attempt to adapt to her new home. Empathy defines itself as having the capacity to understand another person's experience within that person's frame of reference. This runs counterpoint to apathy which is presented as a devil-may-care attitude and a stone-faced detachment from emotion. Riley's apathy uniquely stems from dejection and disappointment with what happens to her parents having to downsize their life in a strange city and the pressure to fit in at her new San Francisco school, among others. The name-drop of mental illness is never fully alluded to throughout the proceedings and in the hands of a lesser storyteller and director, would have been addressed in a contrived and deliberate way. Docter's sensitivity and well-sustained grappling of the material is no easy feat and almost seems autobiographical in its construction.
"Inside Out" is definitely destined to be remembered as the renewal of Golden Age Pixar years from now and, upon some reappraisal seen as a more authentically adult experience when compared to the company's forebears. The eclectic voice cast, full use of current technology and attentiveness to the subject matter and framing devices make this a gut-punch of a movie that delivers from beginning to end.