Sunday, June 28, 2015

Inside Out

Alternate Title:  Happy, Happy, Joy, Joy

One sentence synopsis:     The personified emotions within a young girl's head struggle to regain control of the situation after her family's traumatic move to San Francisco.

Things Havoc liked:  Pixar has had a rough decade so far. Since the release of their twin-masterpieces WALL-E and Up in 2008/9, and the conclusion of the Toy Story series in 2010, the shining giants of modern animation have looked a lot less shiny and a lot less giant. Cars 2 and Monsters University were both decidedly-underwhelming sequels to already mid-grade properties, at least by Pixar's normal standards, and their one attempt to try something new since then resulted in the decent-but-fragmented Brave. The flames of children's animation have been well-tended in Pixar's absence of course, with both Dreamworks (How to Train Your Dragon) and Disney (Frozen, Big Hero 6) stepping in to fill the absence, but the film landscape has missed Pixar at its best, and I, at least, was hopeful that this new film of theirs, based on a brand new concept, might well re-invigorate a studio whose masterpieces I have missed.

As I'm sure everyone knows by now, Inside Out's conceit is that of anthropomorphized emotions residing within all of us, most specifically Joy, Anger, Disgust, Sadness, and Fear. Voiced variously by assorted stars of television comedies such as The Office, Parks and Recreation, Saturday Night Live, and shows from Comedy Central, these five oversee the internal mental landscape of an eleven-year-old girl named Riley, one that is presented with almost dizzying complexity. There's Headquarters, the center of cognitive thought, whose control board is operated by various emotions in turn, and who can call upon everything from memory storage units to idea crystals. There are personality islands, each one representing large-scale elements of one's core personality, projected off of Long Term Memory storage, a labyrinthine archive of crystal-ball-incarnated memories in varying states of repair. There are thought trains, recall tubes, a literal subconscious prison, and all of them tended to by assiduous armies of mental workers (neurons?), who tend, prune, demolish, rebuild, and otherwise maintain the extravagant machinery of mental functioning that keeps Riley (and apparently everyone else) going. Much of the film consists of several of these prime emotions traveling through the landscape of Riley's mind, and they allow for Pixar to get creative with just what they find in there. Everything is realized beautifully, from an abstract thought forge, which atomizes its contents down to constituent epistemological components (represented as ever-more abstract variations on Pixar's art theme), to a dream studio imagined as a Hollywood backlot, complete with casts and crews, directors and producers, all attempting to put cohesive dreams together on command, sipping their coffee and muttering under their breath about someone calling for the same old nightmare all over again.

But the focus is on the five primary emotions and the girl they comprise, and it's here that Director Pete Doctor (of Up, among other things) does some of the more interesting work. One would imagine that with Joy, Anger, Sadness and Fear all cooped up together, the result would be chaos, but the film posits that all five of them work carefully together to try and do what's best by their charge, readily yielding the floor to one another whenever a situation calls for their compatriots' expertise. All five emotions, even the antithetical ones, seem quite willing to defer to Joy as their natural leader, struggling in her absence not to seize power but to somehow figure out how to do her job properly. All five emotions have their natural roles (indeed that's something of the thesis of the movie), with everything from Fear keeping Riley safe, to Anger asserting her rights to fair treatment, to Disgust preventing her from being poisoned ("physically or socially", Joy puts it). Easy as the temptation would be to place all of these emotions at war with one another, the film probably models much more accurately just how people's emotional responses actually interact with one another. Though Joy and Sadness, our primary characters, do not understand in the least how each other functions, there's no sense of them wishing the other gone, beyond the typical frustration that people with opposed personalities can engender in one another. One does not get the sense that Sadness, for instance, would rather replace Joy as the primary emotional state of Riley, for all five of them want her to be happy, even the ones whose job is quite the opposite.

But enough plot, the focus with Pixar is often the subtext and the details, and this film is filled with them to an extent we haven't seen in quite some time. The best sequences in the film, bar none, are those in which the camera zooms not just into Riley's head, but those of her parents, schoolmates, teachers, and others, giving us a glimpse of their particular mental machinery. In each case, the same five basic emotions are present, albeit subtlely shifted to instantly customize the dynamic in their favor, be it a boy Riley's age going into mental meltdown at the very sight of a girl, to the military precision of her father's emotional direction, to sight gags with a half dozen other characters I would not dream of spoiling here. When not buried within Riley's mind, the film is set in my, and Pixar's, hometown of San Francisco, and while I'm becoming used to seeing my fair city on screen, this film shows off a much deeper understanding of Baghdad by the Bay (look it up), with non-famous landmarks front-and-center such as Lick Middle School, Arizmendi Pizza (a locally famous "worker's collective"), and even the freaking Warming Hut down at Chrissie Field, things you're unlikely to find in a tourist guidebook. Indeed, par for the course with Pixar, the film's subtext is incredibly rich, with a great deal of solid psychological theory being presented in a visual, non-explicative manner, including representations of fairly heavy concepts such as depression, memory loss, suppressed fears, moral compromises, and even the pressures put upon kids (particularly girls) to bury their real feelings and remain superficially happy, so that their parents can safely pretend that everything is all right with them. It's heavy stuff, when you sit down and think about it, and the film does a very good job of getting it across without hitting you over the head with the proverbial hammer.

Things Havoc disliked: But the problem is that you do have to sit down and think about it. Because the movie is entirely subtext.

Now this isn't a bad thing, frankly. More movies could stand to be all about the background at the expense of the foreground. But we're not dealing with Franchise Pictures or The Asylum here, we're dealing with Pixar, whose masterpieces of animated storytelling are some of the most poignant works of art ever committed to digital film. Not everything is gonna be Up or Toy Story 3, I realize, movies that I've seen reduce grown men to tears merely through recollecting them. But for all the wonderfully nuanced ground that this movie core, the emotional core of the picture is just... not really there.

Okay, that's not really fair. The core is there, it's just not very well developed. Pixar's best films struck emotional chords that were universal and poignant and heartfelt and true, and while theoretically all of the above is still the case here, the base fact is that the stakes in Inside Out just aren't immense enough to force the audience to empathize. Riley has moved from Minnesota to San Francisco, leaving all her friends behind and starting a new life. Tough, yes, and traumatic, and we do sympathize with her, particularly as her parents seem utterly unable to realize that the transition is rougher on their daughter than they are permitting her to let on. But while most of us have gone through experiences like this in the past, losing our stability in childhood and having to re-create it, the majority of us are perfectly able to do just that, ultimately, and we see no particular reason why Riley can't. The chaos and hijinx pile up inside Riley's head, certainly, but the actual effects in the real world are limited to her getting frustrated, crying occasionally, and finally opting to do foolish, but perfectly survivable things. Wall-E, by contrast, was a devastating film, utterly ruthless in its emotional manipulation of its viewers, using a Woobie-ish (look it up) character to drive wedges into people's souls. Toy Story 3 reduced entire theaters to blubbering ruin with a ten-minute evocation of childhood things put finally aside, while Up casually obliterated its audience with a silent intro sequence cataloging the full life and bitter loss of a character we had not yet even met. Contrasted with these nuclear emotional weapons, the plot of Inside Out seems almost pedestrian, universal though it might be. We have all been through and survived what Riley is going through, and more importantly, we all recognize that no matter how hard it may seem at the time, it proves, ultimately, to be no great matter.

So what do we get if not a trip down Tissue and Dust-Excuses lane? We have our main characters, and this is where we run into another problem. The dynamic duo of the film are the emotions of Joy and Sadness, and while Joy (Amy Poehler) is an excellent character, whose flaws are well-meaning and whose strengths are invigorating to watch, Sadness (Phyllis Smith), on the other hand... is not. Maybe the filmmakers could not understand what might make a character like this tick, but while Joy is allowed a full rounding, including the options of occasionally just getting sick of everyone else's mopey shit, Sadness meanwhile is one of those characters you just want to strangle, a one-note litany of woe and misery, who does nothing but complain, predict doom and pessimism, and flat out refuse to listen to anyone, lest they be required in doing so to somehow leave the blue funk they are mired in. I get that this is literally a personification of Sadness, I'm not looking for Sandra Dee here. But the other four emotions, particularly Joy, manage to embody their characters fully while still retaining a certain degree of professional competence to them. They know, at the very least, what they're doing when they pull the strings, while Sadness, on the other hand, does not. To an extent this is clearly intentional, as the plot of the film is in no small part, everyone figuring out what Sadness is actually useful for. But implicit in such a plot is the fact that we're going to be spending most of the film not knowing what she's useful for, and movies that spend their entire run-time dragging useless characters around do not have the most sterling reputations in my reviews. I know that a movie like this could not have been easy to put together, but it's not like the Sadness-cognates in everyone else's head are moaning wrecks with no redeeming value. Was there no other way to tell this story than by annoying the characters and audience both with a main character who just. Won't. Listen?

Final thoughts:   Honestly, maybe there wasn't. And lest I sound overly critical, the effect of all this isn't so much as to make them film bad as it is to cap the film at merely "good", which is hardly a damning flaw. Inside Out is presently engaged in earning rapturous acclaim from every critic in existence, all of whom I assume are allowing their gratitude at having Pixar back in any capacity overwrite their good judgment. But then perhaps a little excitement is called for here. Inside Out is not some epochal animated masterpiece on the level of Up or Wall-E or Finding Nemo or even The Incredibles, but it is a solid, interesting, funny, and well-produced film, one which fits fairly easily into Pixar's "second tier" offerings, alongside such movies as Ratatouille, A Bug's Life, or Monsters Inc. It may seem unfair to judge the film by the standards of its betters, but Pixar were the ones who created these high expectations, and they have only themselves to blame if people continuously bring up the old classics and wail and gnash their teeth whenever their modern films don't meet that high standard.

As for me? A good film is all I've ever asked for. Inside Out is indeed a good movie, if not more. In a year half-complete that already gave us Leviathan, Jupiter Ascending, and Ballet 422, one could do so much worse.  And for those who demand only the best from their animated studios, there's always November's pending prequel to Theodore Rex...

... Oh just look it up!

Final Score:  7/10

Next Time:  We've had a good run with Hollywood recently, but it may be time to try the waters overseas again...

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