Sunday, July 12, 2015

Life of Riley

Film: Inside Out
Format: Sycamore Theater.

Being a frequent customer of one of our local mechanics has dividends. With six oil changes, you get two free movie tickets. With that in mind, I took Kid #2 to see Inside Out last night since Kid #1 is currently in Vermont for a couple more weeks. It’s hard to beat free movie tickets, and since the other choices at the small local theater were the fairly panned Minions and the thoroughly panned Terminator: Genysis, going to see the latest Pixar film was an easy choice.

Like pretty much everyone else on the planet, my expectations are up when I watch a Pixar movie. Inside Out is Pixar’s 15th feature-length film and the 13th one I’ve seen; of those 13, I genuinely like 10 and think the other three are at least worth watching. Inside Out falls into that first 10. The real question is where. Pixar at its best produces the best animated movies of anyone. Mid-tier Pixar is still generally a step above most other animation studios. What that means is that mid-tier Pixar tends to be better than other family-oriented animated films, but still feel like a disappointment because of those high expectations. Inside Out based on that, is somewhat disappointing. This is a clever and narratively complex movie, but there are parts that simply don’t work for me.

The narrative complexity comes from the way in which the story is told. The conceit of the movie is one that goes back to early days of cartoons (and possibly before that). In Inside Out, our brain is a giant storage facility/factory headed by a control room staffed by little anthropomorphic entities that actually make our decisions for us. The movie concerns Riley (Kaitlyn Dias). The emotions that run Riley are Joy (Amy Poehler), Sadness (Phyllis Smith), Fear (Bill Hader), Anger (Lewis Black), and Disgust (Mindy Kaling). As it happens (since we duck into everyone else’s head at times), everyone is controlled by these same five emotions, although each person has a different controlling emotion. For Riley, Joy runs the ship. For her mother (Diane Lane), Sadness is in charge; Dad’s (Kyle MacLachlan) emotions move to the beat of Anger.

In the real world, the story is that Riley and her parents have moved from Minnesota to San Francisco, a huge change for an 11-year-old girl to handle. Riley loses her friends, is thrust into a new school, has to deal with entirely new situations, and misses everything about her old life. Moved by decisions that are not fully under her control (more on that in a minute), Riley decides that the only way to be happy is to run away and return to Minnesota.

Of course, this is almost a sub-plot of the actual story. The majority of the movie takes place inside Riley’s brain. For years, Joy has hogged the controls, and all of Riley’s core memories, the ones that power specific aspects of her personality, are happy ones. After the move, we discover that Sadness can pick up these memories (that appear as little spheres) and convert them into sad ones, and that once this change happens, it can’t go back. An event on the first day of school causes a new core memory, a sad one, which Joy tries to block from entering Riley’s personality. As a result, chaos reigns for a few moments, and in the confusion, Joy, Sadness, and all of Riley’s core memories are send to long term storage. This means that for the moment, Riley cannot access aspects of her core personality, and that she can no longer experience two of her core emotions.

So, the main story is the attempt of Joy and Sadness to make it back to the control room through the various aspects of Riley’s brain. While this happens, parts of Riley’s personality stop working and collapse since they cannot be accessed. Joy and Sadness wander through lo ng-term memory, deal with different aspects of memory storage, and encounter Bing Bong (Richard Kind), Riley’s imaginary friend, who has been forgotten and left to wander around on his own. And, of course, we have to discover that perhaps Joy has been wrong about the value of Sadness the whole time.

There are some very clever moments here. Inside Out offers reasons why we forget things and why there are certain things we will never forget. A recurring gum commercial jingle pops up at inappropriate times as an explanation for unwanted random thoughts that seem meaningless but will not fade. Dream production is handled by a movie studio. There are also some great little in-jokes, like a factory that produces imaginary boyfriends who claim that they will die for Riley and who live in Canada.

So why is this mid-tier Pixar? There are a few reasons. One is the idea itself. Pixar has a history of taking old ideas (toys actually being alive, monsters in the closet) and breathing new life into them. In this case, though, Inside Out feels really derivative of the early-‘90s sitcom Herman’s Head, in which all of the life events and decisions of a guy named Herman are controlled by four aspects of his personality, all of which live in an anthropomorphized version of his brain. Inside Out feels more derivative than it should because of that.

Another is the character of Joy, who is absolutely the main character. Joy, for all of her good intentions, is not a very nice character. She’s rude and dismissive of everyone else, especially Sadness. Sure, we get the realization moment and the happy ending, but I found her to be a genuinely unpleasant character through most of the film. I’m not alone in that; my daughter’s main reaction to the film was, “I don’t like Joy.”

But hey, it’s Pixar. It will almost certainly be nominated for Best Animated Feature (although there’s always a chance it won’t, as with The LEGO Movie) and has a good chance of winning because, well, it’s Pixar. Mid-range Pixar is still better than most, but because it’s mid-range Pixar, it does feel like a letdown.

Why to watch Inside Out: It’s Pixar!
Why not to watch: It’s only moderately-good Pixar.


  1. I've been waiting for this review, but now that I read the words, I don't quite understand them. ;-)

    I disagree. I think this is absolutely top-tier Pixar.

    I'm a little torn on your first point. I get that Herman's Head did it first, and I watched and enjoyed that show when it came out (Yes, I'm old); but 95% of the audience isn't going to know anything about that show, so it won't matter for them. Obviously, it did for you. (And of course Woody Allen did it first in Everything You Always Wanted to Know About Sex But Were Afraid to Ask), The Herman's Head thing didn't bother me because I thought they did really improve on the idea.

    As for the second point, I can see why someone wouldn't like the character Joy, but she's also the emotion joy, which I think makes a difference in how you have to view her. It's clever that they all just assume that joy should be in control as much as possible, not just because she represents happiness, but because we're all geared to see anger, disgust, fear and sadness as negative emotions that must be controlled. The movie makes the very mature point that we need all our emotions, sometimes even the "negative" ones. And by the end Riley's producing multi-colored balls of complex emotional states. Awesome.

    Also, I absolutely loved that all of the characters are more or less mono-colored, except Joy, who has blue hair and eyes, so that she is tinged with sadness.

    I was most worried that the movie was jumping the shark when Bing Bong appeared, but he redeems himself in a big way.

    In short, I loved it. Your mileage obviously varied.

    1. Well, Inside Out currently sits at a 98% on Rotten Tomatoes, or at least did last night. I'm certainly in the minority in terms of loving it.

      It's only disappointing to me in that it's Pixar. It's got a lot going for it. I think there's some interesting subtext in her mother being controlled by sadness and her father being controlled by anger.

      I get that it's considerably different from things like Herman's Head (I watched it, too), but I don't think it really builds on the idea as much as, say, Monsters, Inc. played with the idea of the monster in the closet. There's a lot more retread here than I'm used to seeing from Pixar, so that's a disappointment. That meme has been around forever--it wasn't new with Woody Allen, after all.

      I won't get into the potential pitfall that Joy, the one "positive" emotion, is essentially Caucasian. Not saying it's intentional...just saying it's there.

  2. I also like the subtext of different emotions controlling different characters. And the joke with the bus driver during the credits was hilarious.

    That's (Caucasian) . . . an interesting thought. I did find it interesting that there was a mix of genders inside Riley's head but her mother and father's emotions were all female and male, respectively.

    1. I thought both Joy and Disgust in the dad's head looked distinctly feminine aside from the moustache.

    2. Yeah, I think you're right. They were all female in mom's head, I think.

  3. I have to agree with Ipecac: I thought this was top-tier Pixar. I liked Joy, she was trying to keep Riley happy because she (like them all) loved her. She reminded me of how bubbly little kids get when they are excited. However, I can see how Joy would be dislikeable with her mania.

    I also adored the visuals; this movie is gorgeous to look at. I also loved the insights we got into other people's head, and do agree with other critics that the movie would have been very different (but still interesting) if Riley was a boy.

    1. Joy turns out to be one of my least favorite Pixar main characters. I've known far too many people with that happy, bubbly exterior who are actually manipulative and selfish underneath--and aside from the insane happiness, those are more or less Joy's driving character traits until the end.

  4. I'm with the others--this is definitely top tier Pixar for me. I didn't come out of it OMG loving it, but I thought it was really complex and incredibly well done. Basically, the story is of a pre-teen girl going through clinical depression due to a chemical imbalance, leaving her angry, confused, but otherwise totally neutral... neither happy nor sad. Knowing someone who goes through this made it very clear to me what was happening as I saw all the familiar signs. And to show what that might look like in the brain with the emotion characters to turn it into a kids' film is some sort of brilliant. This is not really a kids' movie. This is closer to Studio Ghibli for me than Pixar in terms of complexity and age appropriateness.

    However, I do agree Joy is not a "joyful" character. She IS mean and whatnot, but that's the point. She's so full of joy and happiness that she just can't understand why everyone else can't be happy, too. Really, Joy is a child who is also growing up and learning about the world, just as Riley is. And kids know happiness but eventually have to learn there's more to life than that, just as Joy does. Joy has to mature, which she does by the end.

    1. I guess I'm not surprised that I haven't found anyone to agree with me yet.

      I think there's some value in the lesson being offered here. I just wish it weren't so derivative of other things. That's my main objection. I've come to expect Pixar to take certain cultural touchstones and really rewrite them. They didn't here.

    2. Beyond the movie itself, I think Pixar has also provided a really useful tool to communicate with kids who have emotional problems. They've created a symbolic language that counselors, therapists and parents can use to reach kids who have trouble expressing themselves emotionally. I think the impact of this movie is going to be pretty huge.

    3. Now, that's an argument I'll buy.