MOVIE REVIEW: Inside Out
"INSIDE OUT"-- 5 STARS
Five years ago, during the inaugural summer of this website's existence, the virtues and labels of "perfection" were defined, compared, and extolled to "Toy Story 3" in its review and spanned to include the pre-2010 track record of Disney's Pixar Animation Studios. Their run were as close to perfection as was possible in this industry. At that time, Pixar was experiencing a rising renaissance ("Ratatouille," "Wall-E," and "Up") of crossover hit films that were lucrative box office winners and legitimate works of cinematic art that garnered critical acclaim and Academy Award nominations outside of the usual slam dunk Oscar for Best Animated Feature. "Toy Story 3" gave the aura that Pixar was untouchable. No Hollywood entity had a hotter hand. No studio's reputation had a bar set higher.
Five years later, that temperature has faded, the bar has sagged, and the renaissance that we thought wouldn't end peaked and tapered off after "Toy Story 3." Two years ago, in this page's review of "Monsters University," Pixar's track record since 2010 was examined and the disappointments and senses of something missing added up. Questions arose on how much disappointment or lost momentum was acceptable, especially for a studio where even their bad films were better than 90% of everything else out there. When do those slips of quality and results add up? What does Pixar have to do to get its perfection back? Due to production woes on "The Good Dinosaur" (now slated for this fall and still embattled), Pixar sat out 2014 in proverbial defeat without an annual release and had to wait until 2015 for a shot at redemption.
All of those burgeoning and gestating fears we've had for Pixar since 2010 have been answered (and then some) by their new film "Inside Out." Multiple sources of click-bait, including Polygon, Business Insider, and MSN/Hitfix, along with several big-wig critics have stepped out to arguably call "Inside Out" the best Pixar film to date. In an appropriate Vincent Vega internal monologue voice and a mocking Nic Cage impression, that's a bold statement and high praise. The best part is those sites and sources are not blowing smoke up your you-know-what. "Inside Out" is that good and on that level. The "best ever" tag is up to you.
Six-time Oscar nominee and the Academy Award-winning director of "Up," Pete Docter, has fostered, crafted, and energized "Inside Out" from his own original idea. He offers a characterized look into the embodied emotions that run our minds and lives. Each living thing, including our main subject 11-year-old girl Riley (voiced by newcomer Kaitlyn Dias), is powered by five emotions: Joy, Sadness, Anger, Disgust, and Fear. Together, they run the helm-like controls of our thoughts and actions. They are the voices in your head brought to life in this specifically planned out landscape of your mind. When those emotions trigger a memory, a shining color-coded orb is created for purposeful storage and quick recall. The big ones are the "core memories" that go on to create and maintain the pillar "islands of personality" in each person's subconscious. "Inside Out" fleshes that landscape almost like video game worlds.
Each emotion has their defined purpose for our Riley. She's a pre-teen, but still a child, so Joy, voiced by former "Parks and Recreation" and "Saturday Night Live" veteran Amy Poehler, has always been front-and-center leading the charge. Anger (stand-up comic Lewis Black), Disgust (TV star Mindy Kaling), and Fear (fellow SNL alum Bill Hader) have their roles in fairness, health, and safety, but Sadness (Phyllis Smith of "The Office" and "Bad Teacher") doesn't get a big say and is often pushed to the sidelines by Joy. In her real life, Riley's father's (Kyle MacLachlan) new job has forced her and her mother (Diane Lane) to move from Minnesota to San Francisco. Riley is not handling it well on the outside because inside, the predominant setting of our story, Sadness is becoming more prevalent and more powerful. She is inadvertently altering both active and core memories, which is a dramatic new change for the usual "Where's My Happy Girl" Riley.
When Joy and Sadness are pulled out of the headquarters and cast off into the vast storage area of memories, Fear, Disgust, and Anger are stuck running the show and Riley's islands of personality, Family, Honesty, Silliness, Friendship, and Hockey (her favorite hobby), start to crumble with each life change caused by the new move. Joy is determined to get back to the controls and make everything all right. She can't do that without Sadness and some help along the way from other aspects of Riley's mind, including her former and forgotten imaginary friend manifestation Bing Bong (voiced by Richard Kind). The return quest through daunting mental obstacles and the changing course of Riley's life events on the outside stir this film's plot.
The creativity and design of "Inside Out" are nothing short of extraordinary. If you thought the personalized "doors" and massive factory machinations of "Monsters Inc." were clever and really something, "Inside Out" infinitely trumps that film in originality and sheer volume. Each aspect of the mind, from the aforementioned emotions, orbs, and islands all the way to the obstacle zones like Imagination Land, Dream Productions, the deconstruction within Abstract Thought, the locked-away Subconscious, and the dark abyss of the Memory Dump are visualized and organized in strikingly ingenious and artful fashions. You could sit back and dissect this film's intricate details for hours, like you would with something like "Inception," when it comes to all of this symbolized formulation of material, yet the palette is all still approachable and understandable at face value to not be too over (or through) your head. The ensemble casting is pitch-perfect on every level, from top to bottom, to incarnate these core emotions. You may even find yourself hearing the likes of Amy Poehler, Lewis Black, or Bill Hader replacing your own internal monologue for a few hours after the show.
The towering depth of visual originality is equally matched by an unrivaled profundity of emotional storytelling placed parallel to its creativity. As the cool kids say nowadays in their lingo and lexicon, "Inside Out" hits all the feels. Pixar and Pete Docter have mastered the uncanny storytelling ability to take all of the manic and whiz-bang-zoom kinetic energy of their films and slow down it all down, pause, or stop at the rightfully perfect times to reflect on the emotional bedrock of why all of what they are doing and telling matters. Musical composer Michael Giacchino strikes the right chords to orchestrate those moments with delicate beauty. When done right, as it is in “Inside Out,” nobody does it better than Pixar and the poignancy hits like a ton of bricks. The number of warm hugs equal the great laughs of humor that come with the territory and the presence of all of these comedians and comediennes. Simply put, the introspective engagement matches the engrossing entertainment and that is something special.
More will be explained in this website’s signature life lessons at the end, but strip all of the visual design away and you have a little girl experiencing her first major trauma in life. Riley is moving across the country, losing friends, starting over, and feeling the growing distance to both her parents and her childhood innocence that come from puberty knocking on the door. That is complex and heavy stuff, arguably the most complex and heavy Pixar has ever gone, for what is being marketed as a kid-friendly film. Such then has to be said. There is a “buyer beware” note required here for “Inside Out.” The film is PG and for good reason with these difficult thematic elements at the forefront. “Inside Out” is appropriately built for pre-teens and adults and is, without reservation, an automatic must-see for that age group. However, your five-year-old is not going to take this like your 12-year old. He or she could be overwhelmed by the weight of what’s happening, especially when you adults are reaching for the tissues. They could very well cry and ask a great many questions. Just saying, be prepared and be ready.
Ultimately, the prevailing feeling has been that the hallmark extra level of magic and poignancy that used to be Pixar's calling cards have been lost while they milked dollars from lackluster sequels and prequels like "Cars 2" and "Monsters University." We have missed the visual originality from "Monsters Inc." and "Cars." We have missed the sense of wonder from "Wall-E" and "Ratatouille." Most of all, we have sorely missed the strong familial dynamics of "Up," the "Toy Story" series, and "Finding Nemo." "Inside Out" is exactly the redemptive return to form that Pixar desperately needed. The film rivals all of those prior greats in each of those areas. This is exactly what you loved and were missing while standing on its own merits of being something truly great.
LESSON #1: THE REASONS TO BE HAPPY MATCHED BY THE REASONS NOT TO BE HAPPY-- You will see that each of these three spotlighted life lessons are going to speak to essential steps for kids growing up mentally. That arc is the real big picture of “Inside Out.” First, deep down, everyone wants to be happy. We tend to believe that happiness is our default setting, so to speak. We all want our own “Joy” to be the dominant color or trait up in our own control center. We remember that children feel that more readily than adults. You’ll notice that Riley’s parents have different dominant emotions running their minds. In a stellar singular example, watch this video from the Jubilee Project where they asked 25 adults and 25 children what they would change about their bodies and self-image. The reactions are amusingly and powerfully different. Young or old, we all have different reasons to be happy that are matched by the reasons to not be happy that vary by tastes, values, and personality. We can’t always be happy. We probably shouldn’t always be happy either (more on that in a bit). When we learn about these reasons, at whatever age we do, our mentality grows and our individual personalities become more mature and complete.
LESSON #2: THE FACTORS IN MANAGING YOUR EMOTIONS-- Branching off from the central desire to be happy, another piece of growing up and into the person we are meant or destined to become is managing our emotions. “Inside Out” shows that a child sees and reacts to things in predominantly singular ways when it comes to memories and labels. Things are black-and-white in terms of happy or sad, angry or calm, etc. They don't know gray area fully. For example, they don’t know what “happy tears” are the way adults do. That understanding evolves with age because the factors, both internal and external and some in our control and others that are not, that trigger those emotions change and we learn to handle them differently and more effectively. The ability to process and manage one’s emotions and attaining the grasp that our emotions can be more than singular in reaction and expression is a big step in growing up. This film tackles that visually and beautifully.
LESSON #3: ACCEPTING SADNESS-- As it turns out, the most crucial character and emotion of “Inside Out” turns out to be Sadness. She’s not a villain or the troublemaker. In truth, there are no “bad guys” in “Inside Out.” Sadness is her own crucial role. She’s the forgotten, missing half to a necessary balance. See, you don’t know how well or how wonderful happiness or joy can be without sadness as the foil for comparison. Even though we all want to be happy and society finds a way to celebrate everything as awesome or great, we have to know and accept sadness or loss. For Riley and our own youths, being able to do that and come out stronger is an essential, touchstone point in becoming their own person more than the already are.