Friday, June 19, 2015

Inside Out: An animated masterpiece

Inside Out (2015) • View trailer 
Five stars. Rated G, and suitable for all ages

By Derrick Bang • Originally published in The Davis Enterprise, 6.19.15

Sheer genius.

After stalling a bit in recent years, Pixar has reclaimed its throne of brilliance, thanks to the impressively imaginative Inside Out, one of the most entertaining and ingenious metaphors ever brought to the big screen.

Joy, right, is horrified to discover that a mere touch from Sadness can transform a yellow
sphere — representing a happy memory — into one of sorrow. What will this do to the
long-term memories carefully stored within their host little girl's mind?
Mind you, it’s not that Cars 2, Monsters University and Brave were bad films; far from it. But they were disappointing nonetheless: the first two driven more by merchandising and less by a heartfelt reason to continue their storylines, as was realized far better by the Toy Story trilogy. More to the point, all three recent films lacked the inspirational, outside-the-box snap, crackle and pop that has characterized so many of Pixar’s efforts.

It’s their own fault, really: Set the bar high, and fans arrive with expectations.

All of which are met, and then some, by the wonderful Inside Out. By turns exhilarating, wildly euphoric and poignant, this modern-day fairy tale offers perceptive insight into how (and why) we deal with love, happiness, family ties, crushing disappointments and all sorts of routine daily successes and failures, along with a rather droll suggestion of what might be happening when our lives feel “out of balance.”

Director Pete Docter (Monsters, Inc. and Up) concocted a strikingly savvy premise, then shaped it into a thoroughly engaging script with co-writers Josh Cooley and Meg LeFauve. In a way, it’s the Monsters, Inc. concept writ much larger: Instead of merely establishing a reason for nightmares, Docter & Co. have built an entire fantastical explanation for all human behavior.

In short, we’re governed by an uneasy alliance between five key emotions — Joy, Fear, Anger, Sadness and Disgust — which take turns operating  a complex control center within our minds. Too much of any one emotion results in instability, manifested in the outer “real” world by bewildering (to others) behavior.

But it’s much, much deeper than that, as gradually revealed in the charming saga of  Riley, whom we first meet as a gurgling infant born to her delighted mother (voiced by Diane Lane) and father (Kyle MacLachlan). As she’s delivered into the world, Riley’s mind receives its first emotion: Joy (Amy Poehler), awestruck by what she sees “through” her infant host’s eyes.

Joy is further surprised by the creation and immediate storage of the baby’s first memory, wrapped in a protective, bowling ball-sized soft yellow sphere: the color of Joy herself.

But infant frustration quickly follows, cueing the arrival of Anger (Lewis Black); he’s soon joined by Fear (Bill Hader), Sadness (Phyllis Smith) and Disgust (Mindy Kaling). Over time, as Riley (now voiced by Kaitlyn Dias) grows into a rambunctious adolescent — encouraged to do so by her doting parents — her myriad memory spheres are predominantly yellow ... because what is childhood, if not a period of great joy?

But matters are destined to get more complicated.

Following this prologue, which deftly establishes both Riley’s idyllic life and the shared responsibilities of her inner emotions, the story proper begins with the announcement that Riley and her parents will be leaving their Minnesota home for San Francisco.

Although putting a brave face on this forced relocation — with Joy scrambling to make sure Riley stays that way — the move is a disaster. Their new home is a fading relic; the moving company has misplaced their belongings; the undefined business deal that prompted this journey westward has Riley’s dad in a frazzle; and — horror of horrors — the nearby pizzeria serves only health-conscious, vegetable-covered slices.

“Congratulations, San Francisco,” Anger snarls, in Riley’s head. “You’ve ruined pizza!”

(A sentiment with which I’ve long agreed, just in passing.)

Meanwhile, matters have grown a bit odd at the control center. Joy has discovered, to her consternation, that Sadness seems able to “infect” Riley’s memories, turning their happy yellow hues into a morose blue. Fearing the long-term result of this, particularly with respect to the essential “core memories” that shape Riley’s personality, Joy concocts ever-more-desperate schemes to keep Sadness at bay ... but the latter simply cannot help her involvement.

Eventually, and catastrophically, Joy and Sadness get sucked into the tube that takes all memories to long-term storage. (The breathtaking creativity behind all these mental details just keeps getting better.) With only Fear, Anger and Disgust at the helm, Riley’s equilibrium crashes: a ghastly first day at her new school, an even less successful tryout for the local ice hockey team — the sport she embraced, back in Minnesota — and, worst of all, sullen misbehavior toward her parents.

The latter prompts our first brief glimpse into the respective control centers within Riley’s parents’ minds ... and rarely has the Mars/Venus divide been characterized with such hilarious wit.

Clearly, Joy and Sadness must get back to the control center, in order to avert the escalating chaos mounted by the impulsive Anger. But they’re lost in the labyrinthine corridors of Riley’s mind, where a whole new set of worker-bees labor at various tasks. Some clear out long-neglected memories deemed obsolete and therefore cast into a deep, dark pit, where they dissolve and disappear (and you wonder why we recall so little of our childhoods?); others stage-manage our nightly dreams with a film studio’s crisp efficiency (insert some barbed digs at the whole movie-making process); still others handle all sorts of colorfully bizarre tasks essential for emotional stability.

This elaborate mental cornucopia allows for all sorts of whimsical concepts and set-pieces, not to mention little bits of business scattered hither and yon. It’s an extremely dynamic visual template, and one that constantly generates food for thought.

Such as — citing a prominent example — Joy and Sadness’ unexpected encounter with Bing Bong, Riley’s somewhat dormant “imaginary friend,” voiced with a heart-tugging blend of goofy cheerfulness and pathos by Richard Kind.

The visual style varies, as necessary, between Riley’s real-world environment and the more fanciful surroundings of her mental landscape. The animated San Francisco setting employs earth tones to depict familiar streets, neighborhoods and buildings (including the westbound I-80 onramp from Pixar’s Emeryville home). All will be quickly recognized by anybody who has visited the area. The line work is “solid,” in the sense of conveying real-world stability and authenticity.

Riley’s mental landscape, in contrast, is a riot of bright colors and cluttered, amusement park-scale excess. The impression is one of softness: a feeling emphasized by the five Emotions, who have fuzzy skin texture and rag doll-esque hair, in hues that reflect their personalities (i.e. green for Disgust, red for Anger, and so forth). Their somewhat ethereal nature is augmented by a delicate, winsome score from Pixar stalwart Michael Giacchino, a recent Academy Award winner for his poignant work on Up.

The voice talent is terrific throughout, with Poehler’s hyper-happy exuberance an often ironic counterpoint to the increasingly troublesome plot bumps. Smith is note-perfect as the morose, self-pitying Sadness, and Kaling delivers just the right smug haughtiness as the condescending Disgust. Hader is all nerves and jitters as Fear — and his animated avatar even suggests the actor’s rubber-band physicality — while Black’s hair-trigger displays of temper are a riot.

All sorts of guest voices pop up, sometimes only for a sentence or two; sharp-eared viewers might recognize Frank Oz, Paula Poundstone, Laraine Newman, Rashida Jones, and (of course!) Pixar stalwart John Ratzenberger, continuing his uninterrupted streak of appearances in every feature film made by the studio.

Much of this film’s charm derives from its cunning plot twists and perceptive takes on psychology, so I’ll not spoil any of those surprises. But I do think I’ve sussed out why Joy and Sadness share the same hair color, which initially struck me as unusual. I should have known better: Everything in this story — every detail of these various characters — exists for a reason.

Such beguiling narrative “density” has been absent from Pixar’s oeuvre since Toy Story 3 and Up.” High marks to Docter: not just for his collaborative script work, but also — with an assist from co-director Ronaldo Del Carmen and editor Kevin Nolting — for pulling it all together with such engaging snap.

All that said, I suspect this film will play better for adults and older children; the colorful environments notwithstanding, youngsters likely won’t make head or tails of the story’s deep psychological and emotional complexities.

One sidebar comment: As most folks know by now, all Pixar features are preceded by an animated short subject. Sadly though, and for the very first time with a Pixar short, I was completely unimpressed by director James Ford Murphy’s Lava. It’s undeniably beautiful to look at, but the storyline and story presentation — as a Hawaiian-esque ballad — simply don’t work. I guess anthropomorphizing volcanoes was a harder task than the puffy stars of 2009’s Partly Cloudy.

Which has nothing to do with Inside Out, of course. Docter & Co. have produced another animated masterpiece, which I expect to have a long and happy afterlife — likely for generations to come — in everybody’s home library.

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