A film review by Craig J. Koban August 14, 2015

INSIDE OUT jj
½ 

2015, PG-13, 102 mins.

 

Amy Poehler as Joy (voice)  /  Mindy Kaling as Disgust (voice)  /  Bill Hader as Fear (voice)  /  Phyllis Smith as Sadness (voice)  /  Lewis Black as Anger (voice)  /  Kaitlyn Dias as Riley (voice)  /  Paris Van Dyke as Meg (voice)  /  Kyle MacLachlan as Dad (voice)

Directed by Pete Docter  /  Written by Doctor and Meg LeFauve

INSIDE OUT – Pixar’s 15th feature film – is a sumptuously and gorgeously animated, thematically ambitious, but ultimately problematic medication on a child’s perspective on emotions and growing up.  

It’s from director Pete Doctor, whom previously made the masterful UP, which is highly fitting (that film focused on the nature of growing older, which makes it a nice counterpoint/companion piece to his newest effort).  I’ve been somewhat disappointed with the recent crop of Pixar films, filled with bloated and unnecessary sequels like CARS 2 and MONSTERS UNIVERSITY, so I welcomed INSIDE OUT with open arms as a new standalone feature.  The iconic Bay area studio certainly deserves props for not slavishly regurgitating company formulas with INSIDE OUT, which is fiendishly inventive on a premise level.  Alas, my main problem with it is that it's tonally all over the map, which negatively subverts its dramatic impact. 

That, and perhaps INSIDE OUT is a bit too clever and trippy for its own good in the sense that it dives into the psychological processes that both children and adults go through on a daily basis, which are concepts that younger viewers may or may not have difficulty grasping.  There’s no doubt that Doctor and company have lovingly crafted an animated film that dares to tap into a strong defensive theme of the necessity of a broad emotional spectrum (from sadness to anger to fear to happiness) as part of a normal and healthy development cycle for children growing up into adolescence.  On these levels, INSIDE OUT is considerably more daring and risky in approach than a handful of Pixar’s past films, seeing as very few found ways of navigating through such complex and abstract concepts (at least as far as animated films are concerned).  In many respects, INSIDE OUT joyously bucks the trends of many family films on a level of its sheer complexity, but it becomes clear that the ambitiousness of the film sometimes exceeds Doctor’s grasps and handling of the material at times. 

 

 

As for the film’s decidedly out-there premise, the majority of INSIDE OUT takes place…inside the brain of a young girl.  Young Riley (voiced by Kaitlyn Dias) is a relatively ordinary and well-adjusted girl that begins to struggle with depression after her mother (Diane Lane) and father (Kyle MacLachlan) uproot themselves from Minnesota to San Francisco for work related reasons.  Of course, Riley tries to be chipper and a pillar of optimism for her parents during the stressful move, but inwardly she’s struggling.  She misses her school, friends, youth hockey team, and just about everything back home.  When the clan arrives in their less-than-impressive new San Fran dwelling – and have to wait days before the movers arrive with their possessions – Riley begins to emotionally implode even more.  She tries as much as she can to stay positive, but she’s finding it progressively more difficult by the day.   

Now, all of this sounds relatively modest and straightforward as far as storytelling goes.  Yet, the other half of the film takes place, as mentioned, inside Riley’s head, which is shown as a mission control-esque workstation monitored by her various “moods.”  There’s the sprightly and perpetually easy-going Joy (Amy Poehler); the blue skinned and very sad...Sadness (Phyllis Smith); the scrawny and odd looking Fear (Bill Hader); the uptight and snobby Disgust (Mindy Kaling); and lastly Anger (Lewis Black), a red skinned, flat-topped cauldron of…well…anger.  Riley’s whole emotional network is monitored by these beings, whom often fight for control over the switchboard, with none ever assuming a majority of control.  Riley’s memories are presented as round spheres that are color-coded based on the dominant emotion and shipped from one neural location to another in office-like vacuum tubes.  The actual thrust of the story concerns one of Riley’s memories – an apparent happy one for her – that inadvertently gets reclassified as sad – and (for reasons far too complicated to explain) Sadness and Joy find themselves expelled from the control room, leaving the incompatible duo struggling to return and regaining a proper level of cognitive balance for Riley. 

INSIDE OUT is reliably astounding on a level of its consummate visuals.  The sequences involving Riley on the outside, so to speak, have a traditional level of cartoony realism that we’ve come to expect from Pixar as of late, whereas the inside of her head opts for a more decidedly fantastical and whimsical approach to portraying this strange and ethereal universe.  Of course, the sheer level of detail in the diverse imagery on display here is extraordinary, highlighting the studio at the zenith of their artistic might.  There are a couple of brilliant aesthetic moments sprinkled through the film, such as one featuring Joy and company taking a trek through Imagination Land, but not before taking a detour through Abstract Thought, where literally everything is represented as a flat Cubist compositions.  There’s very little doubt that Doctor and his crackerjack team of animators have thought through INSIDE OUT in painstaking and loving detail.  As a visual experience, the film is an absolute triumph. 

Thematically, INSIDE OUT is on solid and noble minded ground as well in its unusual – but justified – defense of melancholy as a valid emotion that every child should and must go through as a part of their development as human beings.  Sadness, as both a character and emotion within the film, starts off the story as sort of the black sheep of the control room family, often overlooked or disregarded.  As the film progresses and Joy and Sadness’ quest to return home hits many barriers and roadblocks along the way, it becomes clear that there is legitimacy to Sadness as a being of necessity for Riley.  She serves just as much of a purpose as Fear, Disgust, Joy, and Anger.  Part of the narrative brilliance of the underlining story is how the film takes incredibly thorny and intangible concepts and represents them in a manner that’s easily decipherable and meaningful.  Ultimately, I appreciated how INSIDE OUT fights for the significance of being sad as an important development hurtle that shouldn’t be ignored. 

Here’s the problem, though, with INSIDE OUT: The characters that populate Riley’s noggin are a little bit too outlandish and hyperactive for their own good to the point of being distracting personalities.  There’s also perhaps a bit too much slapstick shenanigans and pratfalls that occur with these characters that amps up the candy colored silliness to grating levels at times (this, no doubt, was done primarily to appease children that frankly won’t be able to grasp the sophistication of the material here).  INSIDE OUT also has sluggish pacing that hurts its momentum; it’s opening act is resoundingly strong, followed by peaks and valleys of semi-compelling material in the middle, and then culminating in a fairly dramatic climax.  Sometimes, though, the inherent caffeinated ridiculousness of the personas in Riley’s control room literally seems like they're from another animated movie altogether.  More restraint with this inner space world would have been welcoming.   

INSIDE OUT is definitely moving in its final moments, but the entire film failed to linger with me in ways that the greatest of the PIXAR library have (my favorites still remain UP, RATATOUILLE, and THE INCREDIBLES).  At a sparse 90-plus minutes, INSIDE OUT may be the least plot-driven of all of the Pixar films, which holds it back from achieving the upper echelon of quality that I expect from its makers (the film has character development, but very little story development).  Ultimately, I greatly admired INSIDE OUT for thinking outside of the box as far as contemporary animated fare is concerned and for being daring and conceptionally brilliant, but as a whole it simply doesn’t stand with or apart from the pack of the most unforgettably magical Pixar films. 

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