|Joy, Sadness, and Bing Bong in Pixar's latest animated feature, Inside Out.|
Pixar, all is forgiven. The last time I reviewed a Pixar film for Critics at Large, Toy Story 3 (2010), I speculated, that after Up (2009), which I found too mechanical and programmed and the unnecessary, disappointing third in the Toy Story series (a fourth, alas, is on the way), as to whether Pixar Animation Studios, after the near consistent high quality of their movies – Toy Story (1995), A Bug’s Life (1998), Toy Story 2 (1999), Finding Nemo (2003), Ratatouille (2007) and Wall*E (2008) – had lost its mojo. I did not get to Brave (2012), which I heard good things about and did not feel much need to go see, Cars 2 (2011) – Cars (2006) was bad enough – nor Monsters University (2013), the sequel to Monsters, Inc. (2001), one of Pixar’s lesser (but still good) films. In any case, Pixar’s latest movie, Inside Out (2015) is one of the studio’s very best animated concoctions, a psychologically astute and highly inventive movie that Sigmund Freud himself would have loved.
Inside Out tells the story of 11-year-old Riley (as in "Life of…"): a happy-go-lucky girl (voiced by Kaitlyn Dias) whose life is disrupted when her loving parents (Kyle MacLachlan, Diane Lane) uproot her from her home in Minnesota and move the family to San Francisco. At first she attempts to keep a stiff upper lip and support her father, who is facing stresses at work and needs, as her mother implores her, for her to be happy in her new environment. But soon enough, that facade collapses and Riley stops being her upbeat self, pining for her old home, good friends and all she has ever known. We know this because two of the emotions living in and controlling her conscious mind, called Headquarters, Joy (voiced by Amy Poehler) and Sadness (Phyllis Smith) are accidentally dislodged from there, leaving only Anger (Lewis Black), Disgust (Mindy Kaling) and Fear (Bill Hader) to man her emotional controls, something they’re not exactly adept at doing. Meanwhile Joy and Sadness try to get back home, traveling through all manner of Riley’s long-term memories, even as the personality islands which make up her psyche begin to crumble under the strain of the changes that have ensued. (Interestingly, strong emotions like Love and Hate aren't present in the film, likely because too many emotions rolling around in Riley's head would make the film unwieldy but also because they, despite Riley's obvious love of her parents, aren't fully developed in such a young, still impressionable mind.)
I can barely begin to itemize the sheer brilliance of much of what is on tap in Inside Out, which takes all manner of chances in terms of risking the audience not going along with the direction of this highly creative tale. Even by Pixar’s usual imaginative standards, this is one pretty avant garde flick. From the movie’s Train of Thought (literally what it sounds like) to the way Riley’s core memories are stored – they’re glass balls which are shot into a tube as soon as they’re formed – the movie’s originality stands out. Some of those faded memories, incidentally, eventually disappear... along with forgotten characters like Bing Bong (Richard Kind), the very strange looking – as only a young child could conjure up – imaginary friend which Riley has completely erased from her memory bank. Then there are smart riffs on concepts like déjà vu, deconstruction and the differing ways the chief emotions get along – or don’t – in the minds of her parents, teachers and classmates. (For Riley, the mind of an 11-year-old boy would be a completely alien thing and emotionally pretty cacophonous, too.) Naturally, the subconscious pops up, too, as does the dream state, labeled Dream Productions and cast as a massive, unruly movie production, a perfectly apt metaphor for what dreams can be.
|Riley and her parents, in Inside Out.|
By now, Pixar’s choices in voice casting and the animation itself are almost always spot on, as is the case here. Joy is pretty annoying at first – perky to a fault, but what else would she be? But Poehler makes her vulnerable and uncertain, too, and strangely solicitous of Sadness, even though she has to make sure that Sadness doesn’t taint the spheres holding Riley’s memories and alter them for the worse. One of the savvier and genuine psychological aspects of Inside Out is the recognition that Sadness plays a necessary part in Riley’s emotional makeup, one that does and must have its place if the girl is to find and maintain happiness in life. Phyllis Smith is thus quite appealing as the mopey Sadness. Mindy Kaling brings some of the welcome snarkiness she displays in The Mindy Project, her fine TV series, to her character of Disgust, Bill Hader is funny as the nervous Fear, and while Lewis Black, as Anger, is not nearly as angry as his stand up comic persona, tonally he’s just right for the role, inhabiting as he does the brain of a young girl who has little to be angry about and thus hasn’t stoked her anger to a fever pitch. Of the rest of the cast, Richard Kind offers more of the goofy vibes he’s brought to everything from TV’s Mad About You and Spin City to his other Pixar films like A Bug’s Life and Toy Story 3. It was also nice to hear John Ratzenberger (Cheers, The Toy Story movies) pop up in a bit part. Diane Lane and Kyle MacLachlan make the most of what could have been paper thin roles as Riley’s supportive parents. And, of course, as the movie’s pivot, Kaitlyn Dias is superb out as the believable, tomboyish, sweet Riley, evincing an unforgettable onscreen poignancy as the emotionally cast adrift young girl. (In fact, the only lame thing here is the singularly unimaginative Pixar short, Lava, about a lonely Hawaiian volcano, which precedes the feature.)
There are also fewer pop cultural references than in some Pixar movies – though one film reference is priceless – but it seems apropos here as Riley is less of a plugged in girl then most kids her age. (Her main passion is hockey, not Instagram.) And like virtually everything Pixar puts out, this is a movie with equal appeal for adults and children, a balancing act most animated movies fail to pull off as well as Pixar usually does. In short, Inside Out is an animated gem. It’s as good as movies ever get.
LIFE Institute, where he just completed a course entitled A Filmmaker/A Country, which examined various great filmmakers (Akira Kurosawa, Francesco Rosi, Jafar Panahi and others) who have come to represent their country, at home and abroad, simply because they evince a deep curiosity about what makes their homeland tick, in terms of its people, its history, and its interactions with outsiders and their influences. He will be teaching a course on documentary cinema at Life Institute in the fall.