Sad Hill Media

Film & Lesser Arts with Will Ross, Devan Scott, & Daniel Jeffery.

Dec 26, 2015

Inside Out (2015)

by Will Ross

Inside Out is, depending on which narrative you want to take, an evidentiary that Pixar’s creative vitality has survived the Disney buyout, that the stable involvement of a great director is what defines their best films (as opposed to their other recent misfires, which have been palpably made-by-committee), or that as the studio takes on the increasing appearance of being built to create and support franchises, their only hope for greatness is films that are new intellectual properties that cannot be realistically developed past a self-contained conclusion. I’d suggest that a combination of those factors are what made a film like Inside Out possible, and that such a film has survived the gauntlet of production as a fully-formed work of art largely because the idea is just too weird and singular to be able to toss off on some hack to make sense of and retool. In any case, I can’t imagine that a film so unambiguously demanding of an adult’s emotional maturity appeared more market-friendly than whatever finished form Brave would have taken under Brenda Chapman’s direction.

Indeed, Pete Docter is a director whose films thus far have taken outlandish concepts and used them to unite emotional storytelling with surprisingly intricate mechanics; his last film Up seemed almost like a bet to combine as many non-sequitur elements as possible into a coherent narrative, and the door-chase climax of his debut Monsters, Inc. remains one of the studio’s high watermarks, an astonishing assembly lines of pay-offs to that film’s core conceits. Inside Out continues to develop Docter’s gift for wringing more sense out of his stories than ought to be possible by adopting a conceit that takes the storytelling defense of “emotional logic” as its guiding principle.

It is, in short, about emotions; specifically, the caricatured, anthropomorphized emotions of an 11-year-old girl named Riley. Disgust, Fear, Anger, and Sadness all look to Joy as their leader, and try to make sure as many of Riley’s memories are Joyous as possible — especially her “Core Memories”, the inextricable memories that form her personality. What allows this to function as more than abstraction is the film’s visual design, arguably the most inventive and accomplished in the Pixar catalogue, which imagines the five emotions as having a headquarters and control panel that influence Riley’s choices. The film opens itself up for metaphysical questions on the nature of consciousness without easily answering or refuting any of them; what it does do, however, is set up a psychological system that is neither reductive nor incomprehensible, and the results resonate with intelligence and, more than that, with wisdom.

The nut of the plot is Riley’s despair after a move from rural Minnesota to the cramped streets of San Francisco. Confused and conflicted, Riley cannot accept the joyous memories of her past being tainted by the sadness of loss, and so she shuts down and becomes distant — correspondingly, Joy and Sadness have a scuffle over one of Riley’s Core Memories that ends in them being ejected from headquarters. The two have to find a way back before Riley suffers a full personality breakdown.

The chain of set pieces that follows is a tour-de-force, as much a successful nesting doll of character development (both of each individual Emotion and of Riley herself) as well as an interrogation of the flex points between metaphor and fantasy, between abstract representation and parallel storytelling. Nowhere does the film push this tension further than when Joy and Sadness enter the chamber of Abstract Thought while it’s turned on, and are forced to escape before they are abstracted out of scrutability. This corresponds with Riley sitting alone in a playground, wrestling to comprehend loneliness. The film turns a tortured session of sitting on a bench and thinking — which we all know can be epiphanic experience in reality, but is most always an ambiguous or boring one in cinema — into a ludicrously entertaining action sequence without ever sacrificing the mutual dramatic integrity of its external (concrete) and internal (symbolic) spaces.

It’s easy to gush over the conceptual brilliance of the film ad nauseum, because it makes all its ideas so accessible, but let’s take a moment to appreciate the fact that everyone who did work on this film did terrific work. Michael Giacchino seems capable of scoring in any style he sets himself to with unmitigated success; Pete Docter, heretofore the runt of the Pixar-classic directors in terms of camera direction, makes energetic and lively coverage choices that raise him above that ghetto (though he’s far from usurping Brad Bird’s throne); the animators, my goodness. The detail and expressiveness of character animation is incredible, as in the moment when the short and circular Sadness squeezes a leg out from under her as she tries to drop from a seated position to the floor, or the spectrum and variety of spindly spasms of Fear, always moving and angling, his simple, stick-figure-esque shape defining each motion as a gesture of calm or panic.

Or the voice actors, whom are impeccably cast, from the obvious (rage-comedian Lewis Black as Anger) to the aginst-type (satirist and frequent pinhead or straight-woman Amy Poehler as Joy), and, together with the script and character animation, bring a greater range of personality and likeability to caricatured emotions than should be possible. Therein lies the core of Inside Out’s appeal, and uncoincidentally, the nucleus of its thematic orbits: that our emotions are not ipso facto good or bad; there are moments when they are helpful, and moments when they aren’t. Inside Out carves out an example of how complex and sophisticated the process of self-realization can be, and does it with a humour and compassion that defies cynicism.

Oh, and It’s Such a Beautiful Day is a perfect companion piece for this thing. Go watch that.


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