Sunday, June 21, 2015

INSIDE OUT Is a New Pixar Classic


- To distill complex ideas and concepts into easily-palatable art that can be enjoyed and appreciated by all ages is no easy feat. And yet, with INSIDE OUT, the geniuses at Pixar do just that. They create a film so thematically rich and resonant that I have to say - it left me somewhat floored. This isn't the first film or TV show to look inside someone's head and anthropomorphize emotions. We've seen it in works from the old sitcom Herman's Head to Epcot Center's defunct ride Cranium Command. But never has a look inside a person's head been realized - visually or thematically - with this much thoughtfulness and artistry. INSIDE OUT is not just the best Pixar movie in years, it's right up there in the top two or three films that the storied studio has ever produced.

INSIDE OUT takes us inside the mind of young Riley, a girl who's been uprooted from her life in the Midwest to hilly, hippy San Francisco. The trauma of the move, combined with all of the normal preteen anxieties and awkwardness, means that a lot is going on inside Riley's head. And the film shows us how all of that plays out by going all in - showing us the inner workings of Riley's mind via personifications of Joy, Sadness, Fear, Anger, and Disgust.

The movie brilliantly conveys how these core emotions develop from infancy and through childhood, to the point where, in the preteen years, they once again begin to evolve and change. Watching the film from an adult perspective, there's an undeniable sense of nostalgia-tinged sense of loss in seeing Riley slowly stray from childhood innocence into pre-adult hyper-awareness of reality. Wonderment and imagination is supplanted by stress, social anxiety, familial frustration, and all-too-acute self-awareness. The effect is like watching a band make intricately composed music out of a few basic notes. It helps that the emotion-characters are so amazingly realized. Their designs are perfect - totally embodying - simply yet effectively - what each represents. And the voice-acting is similarly fantastic. Amy Poehler is award-worthy as Joy - spunky, caring, determined. But what's really interesting here is the interplay between Joy and Sadness. Sadness, voiced in a memorable and at times heartbreaking performance by The Office's Phylis Smith, is perhaps the film's most stand-out character. In part because Smith makes her both painfully reflective of the way in which we actually feel sadness, but also because the movie emphasizes just how important Sadness is in order for a person to experience Joy. The two characters are companions in the movie, just as the two emotions are intertwined in Riley's brain. It's a powerful idea that's at once both simple and incredibly layered - that in order to be well-rounded, empathetic people - we need to be able to experience and understand sadness.

There's a deep sense of nostalgia for childhood innocence in the film - it will likely have you thinking back to formative moments of your childhood in a way you likely haven't in a long while. But INSIDE OUT is also an incredibly fun and funny film. Louis Black was a standout to me as Anger. As with the other emotions, Anger seems to perfectly embody the way in which our own rage-meters actually get triggered. But man, Black is also hilarious in the role, serving as a red-hot rage-machine counterpoint to the sullen Sadness and peppy joy. Meanwhile, Mindy Kaling's snarky Disgust and Bill Hader's neurotic Fear round out the movie's comedic trio. When Joy and Sadness leave Riley's control center on a mission to prevent catastrophe, the scenes of Disgust, Fear, and Anger left to haplessly hold down the fort are consistently off-the-charts funny and entertaining.

What's also interesting is that, even though we get such a complex look at what's happening inside Riley's head, that fact never really undermines how great of a character Riley herself actually is. Riley could easily have felt like a walking puppet whose strings are being pulled. But instead, she feels fully-drawn and someone that we really, really root for. We just want her to turn out okay, and we cringe whenever Anger or Sadness or Disgust takes over and seems to derail her from being happy and her best self. Similarly, we can't help but feel a sense of loss as we see her growing up at the expense of childhood flights-of-fancy, like her almost-entirely-forgotten imaginary friend Bing-Bong (voiced amusingly by the always-great Richard Kind). But again, what's great is that while Riley's emotions are universal, she herself is still a very specific character. That means that the movie can have some real fun when it shows us fleeting flashes of other people's heads. The results are often really funny, but it's also sort of poignant to see how we can all be so different and yet so uncannily alike. This is a film that espouses empathy, and it does so in a deceptively smart and nuanced way.

INSIDE OUT would be an impressive film just by virtue of how spot-on it is in its representation of our memories, thoughts, and emotions. From the way our unconscious mind creates dreams and nightmares, to the way that an earworm ad jingle can get lodged in our brains, INSIDE OUT feels dead-on with its incredibly well-thought-out depiction of the human mind. Visually, Riley's mindscape is gorgeously rendered, with every aspect seemingly thought through to the last detail. At the same time, we never care about Joy and the rest of the emotions at the expense of Riley.

I could rave about INSIDE OUT for many more paragraphs, but I'll just compliment by saying that the film itself works in the same way as Riley's emotions do. This is a film that goes to some surprisingly dark and somber places, but in doing so it rewards us with true joy and heartfelt emotional connection. It's Exhibit A of what separates Pixar's best from the rest of the animation pack - they don't take shortcuts to get us emotionally involved in their stories - they don't hold back or pull punches, and that makes the payoff that much more meaningful. INSIDE OUT is a movie that will tug on the heartstrings of even jaded adults. But more importantly, there is an important and brilliantly-realized message here about understanding ourselves, and in doing so understanding and empathizing with others.

My Grade: A

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