Monday, 29 June 2015

Movie Review: Inside Out (2015)

At the time of writing this review, my watched list of films for this year seems to be making a grander statement about the film industry than anything I could ever write here. At one end of the list is Disney’s Tomorrowland, a film that managed to make even a jaded cynic like me see the bright side of things; on the other end is Dreamworks’ Home, a film that made me want to chew on the seat in front of me at the cinema just so I could get the syrupy taste of Oh’s dialogue out of my mouth. Now, instead of this just showing off how much better Disney is, since I still stand by my statement of Dreamworks are given more flack than they really deserve, this serves as a neat barometer of what family films are capable of: Some of them may stick to the traditional child-friendly formula that serves no purpose for anyone whose age reaches double digits, while others can showcase better production qualities in both screenwriting and general filmmaking than films made for more ‘mature’ audiences. Given Pixar’s recent pedigree concerning Cars/Planes, a franchise so wretched that it has left a permanent scar on the face of family films, today’s film could honestly go either way in my opinion. So, where does this film fit on the scale? This is Inside Out.

The plot: Inside the head of Riley (Kaitlyn Dias) resides the emotions of Joy (Amy Poehler), Sadness (Phyllis Smith), Fear (Bill Hader), Anger (Lewis Black) and Disgust (Mindy Kaling), whom monitor Riley’s surroundings and create her memories. While Riley is trying to cope with moving to a new place, things go haywire in Headquarters as Sadness tries to find her place amongst the other emotions. When Joy and Sadness end up stuck outside of Headquarters due to Sadness’ meddling, they have to work together to make it back before Riley’s mind starts to fall apart.

This is the kind of cast list that makes SNL junkies froth at the mouth in manic glee, along with casting decisions that rival only Marvel Studios in terms of dead-eye accuracy. Even with my misgivings about Pixar thanks to crap like Tow Mater, having Lewis Black voice the personification of Anger is about as perfect as you can get in terms of fitting an actor to a role, to the point where the filmmakers probably had that locked in before literally anything else about the film. On top of that, we have the typical ditzy and giddy Amy Poehler as Joy, who rubs against the grain just enough to give the effect needed and still be entertaining; Phyllis Smith manages to do the impossible and portray being perpetually glum and not have the terms ‘emo’ or ‘self-pitying’ applied to her at any point; Bill Hader fit nicely as the skittish Fear, easily making for the funniest scene in the film where he essentially riffs on Riley’s dreams; Richard Kind as Riley’s imaginary friend Bing Bong managed to make me invested in a cotton candy animal, so he must have been doing something right; and Mindy Kaling as Disgust results in one of the few times that I can recall that a Valley Girl character actively improved the story. Seriously, that last one ventures on genius voice direction in how much it accomplishes, making it well and truly clear that the director of 2009’s Up hasn’t rested on his laurels with this one. Alongside our mains, we also get Diane Lane and Kyle MacLachlan as Riley’s parents who do well in their relatively minor roles, as well as some nice cameos from veteran comedians like Paula Poundstone, the crew voicing a few parts which given how this is a Pixar film shouldn’t come as any surprise, even getting the legendary Muppeteer Frank Oz himself as a guard arguing about hat sizes… yeah, even in a role that insubstantial, he still leaves an impression.

As much as I love a good comedy, it’s kind of rare nowadays that a film will let me leave the cinema remembering any of the jokes. When the cast is this full of stand-up and sitcom comedians, all of whom have their timing down pat, it comes as little surprise that that is an exception to that rule; literally every joke here is said at just the right moment for maximum impact, right down to the long-lost art of the running gag involving an earworm of a commercial jingle. Not only that, as much as I loathe the word these days due to misuse, the jokes themselves hit that truly ‘cerebral’ level that make for some of the cleverest humour this year has had to offer as well. A definite stand-out for me was Joy and Sadness knocking over boxes labelled ‘Facts’ and ‘Opinions’, then commenting on how similar their contents look. However, having such a high pedigree for funny moments is a double-edged sword where the more somber and/or dramatic moments are concerned. Some gags barge in during the heavier scenes and take the bite out of things for a short time. I emphasize ‘short time’ though, since while the tone of the film may stumble, it never falls.

The animation is done by Pixar, which means that it’s awesome. They clearly had a lot of fun with the ideas presented by the concept of ‘the world inside our heads’ and took advantage of the possibilities it presented, from the dream film set to the library of long-term memory to a surprisingly experimental section involving abstract thought. The character designs for the people inside Riley’s head have a very plush look to them, complete with frayed bits of fabric hanging off of them, which I’m on the fence about: It definitely helps the film look distinct, but it also has a faint whiff of “we designed them with the toys in mind” about it. The fact that, prior to the film, there was an advert for the Bing Bong toy doesn’t help that assumption. On the flipside, Riley and the rest of the outside world have a more subdued to them and are weirdly realistic looking by Pixar standards, which also adds greatly to the visual aesthetic.

At the foreground of all of this is what is basically a fetch quest involving Joy and Sadness having to return Riley's most important memories back to Headquarters. With this, the writers put a lot of thought and care in portraying how people deal with their emotions, or rather how their emotions deal with them, and making it resonate as hard as possible. For starters, the child-friendly design of the emotions is balanced out by the fact that Riley isn’t the only head we get inside of as we intermittently go into the minds of her parents as well as a few other people, each with their own variations on the core idea. Some of them make for good pathos, while others make for really good one-off gags, but they all ultimately show the kind of variety that not only proves that a lot of ideas were being brought to the table for the film, but also shows quite a bit of potential for expansion of the film’s universe. I swear, if Larry The Cable Guy as a faux-secret agent generates a spin-off and this doesn’t, it might be time for some serious reevaluation but we’ll leave that for the sands of time to deal with for now. The other major sign that the writers knew exactly what they were doing is that it takes quite an intelligent stance on how people emote and the nature of how we recall our memories: Every emotion needs its outlet, since even the perceived ‘bad’ emotions have their place, and they all exist within our memories in one way or another; it’s just a matter of what we focus on. Not only is it a rather nuanced idea but it is one that is executed amazingly well through the dialogue and character development through the film, particularly involving Joy and Sadness and even a bit for Bing Bong as well.

What the film is at its purest is the showcasing of two plots running in contrast to each other: While Joy and Sadness are having a rather madcap adventure through some pretty fantastical settings, sprinkled in with bits of pathos here and there, what is happening in the ‘real’ world with Riley is, to put it bluntly, one of the most accurate portrayals of clinical depression I have seen in fiction, film or otherwise. A common misconception concerning depression is that it just involves being sad all the time; take it from someone who knows all too well, that isn’t the case. Instead, I would describe it as a feeling of being completely hollow like every emotion you have has been emptied out of you, putting you in a state where you don't even have it in you to feel sad about anything and you are just unable to accept help from anyone regardless of how right that advice may be, as is shown when Riley’s parents try to reach out to her. It is the point where all that is left behind on the inside is a void that sucks everything else into it until there’s nothing but a shell that once was a person. Not to say that emotions are never shown at this time, as these will usually just spring up sporadically, but that doesn’t mean that they necessarily correspond with what the person is actually feeling. What makes this film as effective as it is is that it is able to portray this kind of emotional state using only a few key moments that only take up a few short minutes on their own, and yet it’s kind of chilling how effective they are within that small time frame.

All in all, the fact that the emotions of Joy and Sadness are at the forefront of the film should clue you into the general tone of the film. It will make you fall out of your seat in laughter one moment, and then have you crawling in tears right back into it the next. It’s a serious gut-buster of a film with an impressive cast to deliver very witty and well-timed gags and jokes, along with Pixar-quality CGI to bring the whole high concept idea to life. However, even with its overly jocular nature, at its core lies a film that shows a lot of understanding for the ways emotions and memories can affect people. I may take umbrage with some of the design choices, as well as a few bits and bobs concerning things that don’t end up resolved by film’s end, but they ultimately aren’t important enough to detract from how amazing this film is as a whole. Hell, the tonal issues aren’t even that big a deal, since these quick turns from giddy to glum moments fit in with the film’s overall idea of emotions literally running amok. If I ever get asked to try and explain how it feels for me and so many other people out there to be in a state of deep depression, I’ll point them to this film to articulate it a lot better than I ever could; the fact that it can deliver such a heavy idea while being this hilarious is something that doesn’t come around every day, or even every year. I may not like the idea of dethroning Tomorrowland so soon after having reviewed it, but this is the kind of movie we’re dealing with here as knowing that this film is capable of shedding on something that is that close to me pushes it over the top. Even if you have absolutely no interest in the psychological depths of the thing, I would still highly recommend this film as one of the funniest sits this year so far.

Oh, and since I don’t want to leave this stone unturned like I did with Cinderella and Frozen Fever (although, in fairness, that one was pretty good), here’s a quick bit on my thoughts about the Pixar short Lava that precedes the film: It seriously felt like it was trying to make me hate it with that stupid lava/love pun being repeatedly so damn often, but it nevertheless is a nice little love story with a soothing ukulele soundtrack. I also like the design for the male volcano as well.

1 comment:

  1. Not since Up, has the studio made anything so visually delightful and emotionally resonant that it instantly surpasses the mediocrity of Cars 2, the underwhelming Brave and the passable Monsters University. After some much talked about concern from the general public regarding the studio's dwindling quality in their animations, Pixar is back on track after several failed attempts with a delightful, if message-heavy, tale about a little girl coping with a big move. Inside Out's story is utterly unique and also a wondrous and magnificent film that celebrates the human experience and all of the smiles, warmth, laughter, tears, frustration, and despair that comes with it. Pixar still manages to do what it does best, turning the everyday rough and smooth of childhood experience into a thoughtful, inventive adventure.

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