Inside Out (2015) - Can't Stop the Movies
Can't Stop the Movies

Inside Out (2015)

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Riley Anderson is a chipper and cautious girl who's not prone to sadness, anger, or disgust.  What she doesn't realize is a power struggle is going on inside her mind as each emotion struggles to make their voice heard through Riley.  When her family moves away from her home town, she is beset by complex feelings and memories while her emotional crew struggles adjusting to the change.  Pete Docter and Ronnie del Carmen direct Inside Out from a screenplay written by Docter, Meg LeFauve, and Josh Cooley with stars Amy Poehler, Phyllis Smith, Richard Kind, and Kaitlyn Dias.

You can feel a lot of things at onceIt’s been a rough few years for Pixar.  Starting off with the misfire of nostalgia and stereotyping which was Toy Story 3, they dropped further muddled efforts Brave, Cars 2 (Ryan's Dislike review), and Monsters University (Ryan's Like review).  The creative team which once seemed willing to keep animation free from restrictions of space, speed, and time instead spun its wheels with drab retreads of old stories and sequels with diminishing returns.

Fitting, then, that Inside Out is not only the best movie Pixar has created in the almost a decade, but goes back and examines the very basics of visual storytelling.  When we’re watching a movie we aren’t limited by language, that cumbersome thing which is prone to confuse and anger when words mean different things to different people.  Movies have the power to transcend that confusion and communicate directly with our memories and feelings, evoking powerful and sometimes painful images as we create an ongoing film reel to play over and again in our heads until the narrative of our lives is complete.

What Inside Out does is take this process of memory and make it literal in a way Shakespeare, who was constantly verbing nouns, would take delight in.  Pete Docter’s beautiful film assumes our emotions have a life of their own, and - considering how suddenly we can switch from sad to happy to angry then back to sad – that’s as plausible an explanation to me as anything neurology or psychology can dream up.  Inside Out is bright, exuberant in its positive vibes, but never for a second condescends to the painful war inside every one of us as we grow up.

Poehler may be the star player, but all of Inside Out's voice actors turn in stellar performances.

Amy Poehler may be the star player, but Inside Out's vocal performers all turn in excellent work.

Docter has presided with and over many of the Pixar greats, such as WALL*E and Toy Story 2, and understands the value of having animation which speaks for itself as much as the dialogue will.  I actually felt a twinge of disappointment when I heard voices over the speakers as baby Riley (Kaitlyn Dias) makes her first happy coos in the world.  All you need to understand is right there on the screen as baby Riley smiles and Joy (Amy Poehler) lights up the darkness of Riley’s mind.  There’s a beautiful simplicity to this and works as a perfect aid to visualize why movies make us happy when a bit of brightness can illuminate the dark.

But what makes Inside Out much more complex than this is what happens next, as baby Riley grows suddenly afraid and Sadness (Phyllis Smith) enters her life.   The idea, made more explicit throughout Inside Out, is that Riley is as much a product of her upbringing as she is her biology.  If her parents (Diane Lane and Kyle MacLachlan) were not loving, if they were cruel or negligent, Sadness could have entered Riley’s life well before Joy.  As other emotions emerge from Riley’s unconscious Docter primes the audience for more complexity.  It’s easy to label each memory as happy, sad, angry, fearful, or disgusting, but the reality is these emotions interact with one another in a way so complex we need stories to make sense of it all.

Which is what makes the structure of Riley’s mind such a wonder.  Many of us have a place where we can go to feel safe, and Doctor makes these structures the literal industry of Riley.    I love the look of Riley’s “command center” where the emotions gather, it’s simple but everyone can take a turn at the board.  When we see her father’s “command center”, in one brief and delightful moment, he’s placed his anger at the center of a deck.  Then mother has a conversation table where everyone shares equal billing.  Another subtle and important message about these people is communicated with these structures as Riley’s father has tamed his anger but still made it the captain of his structured mind, but Riley is still confused and trying to be happy.  It’s no surprise then that the big conflicts of Inside Out have more to do with Riley and her father than her mother.

I love the hazy view of memory, which seems wrapped up in one emotion even if the events aren't clear.

I love the hazy view of memory, which seems wrapped up in one emotion even if the events aren't clear.

I could go on for paragraphs more on just the design and colors, but the structure of Inside Out is so tight and entertaining it would make for a spectacular radio play as well.  Inside Out‘s screenplay by Docter, Meg LeFauve, and Josh Cooley is a hoot.  Anger (Lewis Black) relishes the opportunity to lash out with that “one curse word we know”, and the trippy sequence through abstract thought is written with delightful puns and wordplay which gave the visual team a lot to work with.  Then there’s the tragic Bing Bong (Richard Kind), whose fate highlights how our parts of childhood never survive the journey into adulthood, but that doesn’t mean their absence is bad – just different.

With Inside Out’s writing and creative talents it was likely going to be a success no matter who supplied the voices.  But Docter also assembled a collection of vocal talent who match their characters so well they deserve to stand alongside Robin Williams as Genie.  Poehler’s work as Joy is remarkably complex, as she gets to the weariness of being happy all the time with a sudden drop or sharpness in her voice.  The Pixar tradition of casting age-appropriate performers paid off well for Dias’ work as Riley, and her confusion and rage bring texture to the character.

Dias’ work as Riley is also important for the central message, never directly spelled for us, of Inside Out.  It’s great if you’re happy, but it’s ok to be sad, and no one need tell you how you should feel.  Docter doesn’t condescend to children with this message because it’s still just as hard for adults to grasp this.  We grow up, and emotional answers to complex questions sometimes seem so muddied we don’t know what we feel.  It’s ok to be confused, it’s ok to not know, but hopefully you’ll have someone there to love you no matter what you feel.

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Tail - Inside OutInside Out (2015)

Directed by Pete Docter and Ronnie del Carmen.
Screenplay written by Pete Docter, Meg LeFauve, and Josh Cooley.
Starring Amy Poehler, Phyllis Smith, Richard Kind, and Kaitlyn Dias.

Posted by Andrew

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  1. I definitely agree that this film was Pixar’s best in the past decade. You can always count on Pixar to have polished visuals – although sometimes they do less with them ( the Cars films) than they could – but I was still impressed with how creative they were with portraying Riley’s mind. As you said, the command center was a great piece, for one. I also loved how the long term memory shelves were visually similar to a brain from above. There were just so many compelling images that even if the script was mediocre there would be plenty to keep you engaged. Luckily, I thought the script was phenomenal; it just blew me away how intelligent and – more importantly – truthful it was. Like you said, kids will definitely enjoy it as a “kids movie,” but the adult level of the film is so accurate that it becomes hard to deny that that’s what the inside of your mind is actually like. When I went to see it, I honestly had not even heard about it and mainly wanted to please my wife by agreeing to go. I am definitely glad that I did. Did you see any flaws or areas for improvement? The more I think about it, the more I feel like they crafted an exceptional, original film with no real weak points.

    • Thank you for the comment Nathaniel. Honestly, the only complaint I had would be more of a personal preference thing, because it was so easy to follow and engaging on the visual and emotional level I thought the dialogue got in the way sometimes. But then we wouldn’t have Dias’ amazing work when she’s speaking to her class, or Joy desperately trying to figure out how to escape but still maniacally upbeat. It would have been likely off-putting to have a dialogue-free movie about emotion, but this team showed in the opening scenes they could have done it.

      So my only complaint is it’s clear they could have been more ambitious. That’s not a bad place to be.

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