Inside Out (2015)
Starring Amy Poehler, Phyllis Smith, Richard Kind, Bill Hader, Lewis Black, Mindy Kaling, Kaitlyn Dias, Diane Lane, Kyle MacLachlan
My initial reaction to first hearing about the premise for Pixar Studio's latest animated feature Inside Out was one of disappointment. Anthropomorphising the different facets of the human psyche is a hoary trope, one of the oldest cliches found in fantasy and myth. Shouldn't advances in modern psychology have gotten us past the form of lazy essentialism which inspired ideas as stupid as the "emotional color spectrum" from Green Lantern? Pixar is the master of anthropomorphising just about any object, of course. But even they've produced something as banal as Cars. The studio’s last few efforts were pretty underwhelming, which had me concerned about how they would go about tackling something as abstract as the mindscape? So my expectations were set relatively low. But the first teaser trailer got me intrigued about the film. I loved the voice talent involved. 2 months after its woldwide release, the film finally came out in local theaters this week, and I quite enjoyed it.
Inside Out is a quintessential Pixar fairy tale. While all of the studio's feature films are ostensibly aimed at kids, their themes are calculated to appeal to adults, or more specifically the adults who've felt the pain of loss. Kids experience those emotions too, obviously, but there's a peculiar sense of thwarted ambition that cuts deeply with adults. Think of Woody's sudden drop in social status in Toy Story, Bob Parr being shackled to a desk when he just wants to be a superhero in The Incredibles, or Carl and Ellie's inability to take that trip of a lifetime in Up. Inside Out focuses on the most devastating loss of all, at least from the POV of a young adult - the end of childhood. The child in question is an 11 year old girl named Riley (Kaitlyn Dias), whose idyllic existence in nowhere Minnesota is brought to a close when her family uproots and moves to the big city of San Francisco.
The Toy Story series dealt with the topic of growth, sort of. The films mostly kept their distance from the kids and concentrated on the inner lives of their toys, whose very subsistence was dependent on a child's playful imagination. Their owner's inevitable aging was a force of nature they had to weather, as best as they could. Inside Out marks a milestone for Pixar by putting a child front and center, and a female one to boot. But it plays a trick by actually focusing on the anthropomorphised emotions within the child, all voiced by adults. The ringleader of the 5 emotions, Joy, is perfectly cast as Amy Poehler. She channels the same manic personality that made plucky Midwesterner Leslie Knope from Parks and Recreation infamous. Phyllis Smith informs her counterpart Sadness with the same low key presence she used with her character Phyllis Lapin in The Office. Bill Hader (Fear), Lewis Black (Anger), and Mindy Kaling (Disgust) riff off their already established comic personas. This sleight of hand imbues Riley with an acerbic quality that wouldn't be possible had the emotions been voiced by kids or adult actors pretending to be kids. When she throws a tantrum at her parents, there's Black righteously fuming inside her head to lend those frustrations extra force.
So much time is spent with Riley's emotions that little attention is given to external events. Had this been a more conventional coming of age tale, the plot would have followed her struggle to fit into her new school, experiencing persecution at the hands of the popular kids, finding lasting friendships among the freaks and geeks, discover an activity she can excel at, then finally triumphing at some big school event. If any of that happens to Riley in the film, it's only faintly implied. There are no mean girls to confront. The story's primary conflict is between Joy, the dominant emotion, and Sadness. Their struggle for control of Riley's fragile psyche has them both literally ejected from consciousness and into the vast labyrinth of her long term memories. Without these two emotions driving her actions, Riley gradually looses the ability to feel anything.This twist might be the most brilliant illustration of childhood depression ever found in an animated feature to come out of Disney.
But it's Pixar's blend of sleek design, wry humor, and beautifully rendered animation that sells this fantastic world. The studio's retro-futuristic aesthetic portrays Riley's mind as an endless wonderland that looks like a cross between a Star Trek utopia, a major film studio lot, and a Disney theme park, with some of Apple's chic interface thrown in. Steve Jobs fanboys will get a chuckle out of the "reality distortion field" being an important mental process. It's a place where old structures are torn down in response to Riley's changing emotional state, unused memories fade and are ultimately discarded, and forgotten imaginary friends wander about without purpose. And yet, memories of commercial jingles have an annoying habit of unwantedly popping up for no reason. Daily memories are the building blocks used to create dreams - massive productions filmed on Hollywood-style sound stages, while experiences deemed too traumatic are banished to the cave of the subconscious. This complex setting makes Joy and Sadness' quest to return to "headquarters" suitably epic and even fraught with danger.
The emotions themselves are visualized as simple candy-colored caricatures streamlined to represent their respective psychological state. But they all have this granular surface quality to them that gives the appearance of restless clumps of vibrating particles rather than solid physical entities. What's most fascinating about them however is what's left unsaid. The audience gets a glimpse of the minds of Riley's mom and dad, and the contrast is enlightening. While they're also compromised of the same 5 basic emotions, they've evolved very differently. The adult emotions are more disciplined and in-synch. But they're also more regimented. Unlike Riley's emotions, they're uniformly gendered, and it's apparent that their equivalent of Joy isn't the dominant character. The film spends little time with the parents, but what's seen reveals that the move to the West Coast has put the two under considerable financial strain, a fact they try to shield from Riley. It slowly dawns on them that their need to project onto their own daughter a happy can-do attitude might not be the best thing for her.
This ability to channel adult anxieties into the bodies of preteen children vaguely reminds me of the precocious youngsters of the classic comic strip Peanuts. At its most poignant, Charles Shulz's creation could be brooding and angry, assisted by a rich helping of guilt and shame. Inside Out falls short of the strip's emotional intensity. It doesn't explore the cruelty children often inflict on one another. But its melancholic resolution will reassure kids that it's okay to be occasionally unhappy, and remind the adults in the audience of the naive pleasures they’ve lost and may never experience again, except through the eyes of their kids.