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Wednesday, June 17, 2015

Movie Review: 'Inside Out'

Pixar's Inside Out doesn't use its inside voice as well as it could.

Review by Matt Cummings

WARNING: Spoilers ahead

In Pixar's 15th animated film Inside Out, the 11-year-old Riley (voiced by Kaitlyn Dias) has moved from the idyllic Minnesota to San Francisco with her parents (Diane Lane and Kyle MacLachlan). Riley is intelligent, loves ice hockey, and has strong friendships, all managed by a team of emotions in her head that store core memories and fuel five theme parks in her mind. The lighthearted Joy (Amy Poehler) is the dominant emotion, striving to make sure Riley stays happy, while Fear (Bill Hader), Anger (Lewis Black), and Disgust (Mindy Kaling) keep her safe and on guard. After the black sheep of the group Sadness (Phyllis Smith) accidentally poisons Riley's core memories, Joy and Sadness are transported to the far reaches of Riley's mind, forcing the two to make the long trek back. But they need to hurry: without Riley's core memories, the theme parks begin to fail, cutting off transport back to Headquarters and potentially forcing Riley down a dark path.

As someone who loves animated films for their simple joy, quirky characters, and strong messages, I found this 94-minute movie to be more of a 2-hour ordeal. Too much time is spent in Riley's head - not enough in Mom or Dad's - and the whole premise of Joy and Sadness trying to return Riley's core memories does little to solve Riley's growing sense of separation and failure. Even when those memories are returned, Riley's family will most likely stay in SF, leaving her former life and those same memories of Minnesota as nothing more than distant reminders of her old life. There's never a time when she comes to realize this, is never told that by her parents, and never ever a time when the audience can experience that with her. Nothing will change the course which her parents have set, so it takes away from the importance of the journey which Joy and Sadness make back to Headquarters. Riley must live in this apparently dreary world of San Francisco (a preposterous notion if you've visited one of the most beautiful cities in the country) whether she has these core memories or not.

There is a message here (buried deep) that all the emotions have to work together, but that's a practice which only happens in the last minutes of Inside Out. What bothers me most is the way Sadness is portrayed: she is far more destructive to Riley than the film's creative team would like to admit. Why she decides to randomly poison Riley's memories by turning them blue is never explained, making her look like either a dim-witted emotion or a glorified tagger. Is she angry at Joy, or simply not aware that her actions are causing a sea change in Riley? Moreover, the message that emotions need equal stage time in order to be respected isn't realistic: normally, people choose to exhibit an emotion according to external stimuli, not to who's ruling the roost at that particular moment. Perhaps that's a clinical way of looking at things, but Directors Pete Docter and Ronaldo Del Carmen don't seem to care whether we appreciate this or not. They're focused squarely on Riley, Joy, and Sadness, with everyone else either a fun distraction or an unnecessary weight.

Our voice cast is good but not great, with the enthusiastic Poehler and the morose Smith not given enough to expand either of their characters. Mom and dad are simply window dressings, content to play people who tell Riley what to do without learning why they operate the way they do. Getting inside their heads as much as Riley's might have yielded better (or more comedic) results. Hader, Black, and Kaling get their moments, with Black's Anger benefiting the most, but again there's just enough for us to know of them without knowing about them. They really play subservient caricatures to Joy, even at the end when the team is given an improved navigation board that the adults already have, allowing each emotion an equal voice.

This is not a kid's film by any stretch of the imagination, so don't expect the silliness of a Monsters Inc or roar of Cars. This is a rather serious adult affair that doesn't work half as well as it should. I know that's a minority opinion, but when I can see a scene played out better in my mind or one that involves the death of a beloved character, that's too much to be able to recommend to younger families. Perhaps it's made for the 12-14 year olds who grew with Toy Story and Finding Nemo, but it's certainly not for a new generation of kids half that age.

If Pixar wants to be viewed as an animation studio that produces fun comedies and more serious affairs, I think that's a smart move; but marketing the film as anything other than what it is feels underhanded. Little kids will have no idea what is happening half of the time, especially when the death of memories is played out to rather uncomfortable results. I'm not kidding: wait until you see what happens to Riley's imaginary friend Bing Bong (Richard Kind).

There is also an overly-long short film that plays before Inside Out called Lava. It's perhaps the worst of Pixar's esteemed achievements, focusing on a Hawaiian-singing lonely volcano. Yes, you heard me right.

In the end, Inside Out will either be a terrific personal experience or a tedious one. For me, there's too much opportunity left on the table and a way serious story of growing up that's being marketed to the wrong audience. Its stunning animation will no doubt garner it consideration for Best Animated Film come February, but any talk about a Best Picture nomination is both way too early and not at all earned.

Inside Out is rated a surprising PG for mild thematic elements and some action and has a runtime of 94 minutes.

Discuss this review with fellow SJF fans on Facebook. On Twitter, follow us at @SandwichJohnFilms, and follow author Matt Cummings at @mfc90125.


Marlene Detierro August 4, 2015 at 7:05 PM  

This is a humane and heart-wrenchingly beautiful film from Docter; even measured alongside Pixar's numerous great pictures, it stands out as one of the studio's very best.

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