Well, the long hiatus is over, and I’m finally back to work on cynically tearing apart feature films in a manner that would make Anton Ego from Pixar’s Ratatouille proud. It’s been a depressing two weeks, to say the least, so it seems only fitting that this latest entry be in response to an animated film about coming to grips with your emotions.
Pixar has undoubtedly had a shaky couple of years with some less than par entries in Brave and Monsters University. You can rest assured knowing their latest addition—Inside Out—is a return to the gut-wrenching poignancy we’ve come to expect from the studio. You’ll laugh, you’ll mostly cry, but above all, you’ll have fun and leave the theater with an updated outlook on emotion.
A baby’s cry, a spark of laughter and whoosh—we’re introduced to Amy Poehler voicing the effervescent character of Joy. Joy is one of 5 anthropomorphic emotions that live a little girl named Riley’s head who also control her day-to-day via a central control panel. As their actions influence Riley’s behavior, new memories are formed in the shape of holographic spheres which are then sorted accordingly throughout the landscape of her mind.
The other four emotions include Sadness (voiced by Phyllis Smith), Anger (Lewis Black), Disgust (Mindy Kaling) and Fear (Bill Hader). Each has a hand in producing these memory spheres though for the most part the ‘happy’ yellow orbs which Joy makes dominate Riley’s memory library.
When Riley’s parents sell their house and move the family to San Francisco, Riley’s emotional control center is sent into disarray. Her memories are suddenly dominated by the red spheres of anger, the blues of sadness, the greens of disgust, and the purples of fear with seldom a joyful memory in sight.
Joy—who you could essentially call the dominant emotion—has her hands full trying to repair the damage by recalling old happy memories via a pneumatic tube. Unfortunately, Sadness inadvertently disrupts the “core memories”(basically five key spheres that power Riley’s personality traits), and both emotions are sucked into the tube and deposited far from Control.
It’s a “they have to go on an elaborate journey to get back home and save the day” kind of movie. Think of something like Shrek where you have opposing personalities learning to work together, and it’s more or less the same movie. Joy and Sadness are diametrically opposed (though there is no malice between any of the emotions), and they desperately want to return Riley to a happy state.
Along their journey home, Joy and Sadness explore the various parts of Riley’s mind and gain a greater appreciation for their work to balance out her emotions. Meanwhile Fear, Anger, and Disgust frantically try to keep Riley happy, but to no avail, as they simply aren’t Joy.
The whole thing is more or less paralleling the notion that a relocated pre-teen would have conflicting and confused emotions. It’s a coming of age story like no other and it’s exactly what I would expect in a true Pixar story.
Now if I were going to summarize my opinion in a sentence, I would simply say “it was a good Pixar, not a great Pixar”, but that simply wouldn’t do this film justice. There are a lot of things that work in its favor, but, unfortunately, there are also several plot holes and unnecessary complexity that weigh the story down.
In case you didn’t gather from my lengthier-than-usual synopsis, this isn’t a movie for children. I mean, what child is going to understand something like a person’s subconscious or abstract thinking (both of which are represented as physical locations in Riley’s brain). This is a very complicated idea the studio is trying to convey, and it was extremely evident that the infants to my right in the theater had absolutely no idea what was going on.
Other than a bit of slapstick comedy at the hands of Bill Hader’s character of Fear, there was little, if anything, that would appeal to a child. Granted, I am not a child and have not been so for quite some time, but I very confident in saying Inside Out fails to reach younger audiences. What it comes down to is the fact that it lacks any of the ‘fun’ or relatability of the studio’s other films.
Let’s take Ratatouille as a counter example. Remy was a rat who wanted to be a famous chef. The central messages were “Anyone can cook” and “you shouldn’t sell someone short just because of their background”. It appealed to children because it had a cute rat, and he had a fun and comical relationship with the human Linguini. It appealed to adults because of its lampooning/celebration of French culture and cuisine and other, more adult themes.
Also, there was that one EXTREMELY adult reference where the head chef said “Sometimes you can become too familiar with vegetables.” If you didn’t catch that vegetable-as-a-dildo reference the first time, you clearly need to rewatch the movie.
With Inside Out, I would go so far as to say none of the characters are very relatable—to children OR adults. I guess if you’re a transplanted 12-year old you might get something from Riley, but it seems like everyone else is just a one-dimensional caricature.
Don’t get me wrong—this is what the film is going for with the 5 emotion system. I appreciated the way they executed it all, but it takes a very long time for you to connect with or appreciate either Sadness or Joy.
I guess you could call the overall tone of the film a hiccup as well since for the most part, it’s ridiculously depressing. There was very little humor in the first hour or so and even then the accompanying laughter was no more than a polite chuckle by a few of the adults. The rest of the film was just a cacophony of sniffles abruptly cut short in the last 2 minutes by uproarious laughter. Not a very happy balance if you ask me, but hey—what do I know about emotional stability?
As far as other negatives go, it was just a matter of including unnecessary obstacles to stretch the story along. The ‘abstract thinking’ segment is a good example. Essentially Sadness and Joy team up with Riley’s childhood imaginary friend Bing Bong (an elephant/dolphin/cat made of cotton candy). He then leads them to a shortcut that takes them through the realm of abstract thinking.
While I did appreciate the animators representing it as a vacuum chamber and devolving the characters to cubism, flat-liners, etc., it seemed utterly pointless to include. It didn’t propel the story along in any way, and really only served as a convenient delay so the protagonists would miss the ‘Train of Thought’ (literally a train that would have quickly transported them back to headquarters).
But I’m being too critical now…
Onward my friends! Let us move from the negative to the positive of this film. Kids might not get it, but the central premise is utterly fascinating and clever to behold. I loved the artists’ representation of all the various parts of Riley’s mind, right down to the individual memory balls and the ways various characters could interact with them.
Even the whole ‘central command’ gimmick for Riley’s brain had me chuckling as it immediately brought to mind a memory sphere of my own in the form of Woody Allen’s Everything You Always Wanted to Know about Sex * But Were Afraid To Ask. For those of you unfamiliar, it’s essentially the same thing as Inside Out but with the whole body being full of command nodes. Men roll out the host’s tongue for a kiss, sperm are characterized as paratroopers getting ready to carry out their mission—it’s absolutely hysterical if I do say so myself. Burt Reynolds is it in that helps your decision. Check it out.
As you would expect from a Pixar film, all the technical components are flawless from the actual animations to the accompanying score and sound editing. I would be shocked if this didn’t bring home the Oscar gold next spring for the animation category, as A. it’s pretty darn good, and B. it has absolutely no competition. (Not sure if When Marnie Was There is eligible for nomination).
The most important and most powerful aspect of Inside Out is without a doubt its thematic exploration. Its central message of ‘take the good with the bad’ is one that resonates with every audience member, but particularly with me after recent events. No one person is entirely happy or entirely sad. At the end of the day, all we can do is to celebrate our own Sadness as it makes Joy all the more appreciated when it returns again.
I wrote somewhere in another review (probably Dark City) something like “great movies are emotional journeys”, but I would not say I’m obligated to label Inside Out a ‘Great Movie’ simply because I felt something in the theater. It does a lot of great things and is definitely worth the watch, but I’ll let you judge for yourself. It may not have broken into the top echelon of Pixar films for me, but I cannot in good conscience say their latest entry was only a ‘good movie.’
You’ll laugh (though probably not until much later in the film), and you’ll certainly cry, and for that I have only the highest praise for the beloved studio and their mindful creation. Don’t expect a Wall-E or an Up, and just be sure you have a few Kleenex handy. Trust me – there will be tears aplenty.
The Bottom Line:
Everyone has their hierarchy of Pixar films, and regrettably Inside Out was not one to dethrone any of my top three. That being said, the studio has clearly made a return to quality after a troubled few years fraught with sequels and the movie Brave…ugh.
It’s an overly complex, albeit immensely clever take on emotion, but one clearly not meant for an intended audience of children. There’s no doubt it will win the Oscar for Best Animated Film next year, so you should probably just get a head start on your viewings and take a trip to the theater.
Regrettably, it’s not particularly funny until the end though it does have a few mild chuckles you’ll laugh at more out of obligation than anything. Really it just feels like Toy Story 3 but with all the unnecessarily ‘dark’ sections replaced with even more sadness.
If you’re at all like me, you’ll probably cringe every time the character of Sadness is on screen and secretly hope Joy just pushes her off a cliff. I get the whole ‘you can’t have one without the other’ message, but for Christ’s sake spare me some of the time from having to listen to Phyllis Smith.