Sunday, July 12, 2015

Head Trip

Reel To Reel: Inside Out

Going Rate: Worth full price admission
Starring: Voices of: Amy Poehler, Lewis Black, Mindy Kaling, Bill Hader, Phyllis Smith, Diane Lane, Kyle MacLachlan, Kaitlyn Dias
Rated: PG
Red Flags: Nothing objectionable, but this is a film designed for older children due to its subject matter and demonstrated emotional intensity

Inside Out is a genuinely moving film continuing Pixar's tradition of quasi-arthouse work: animation and characters for the kids, but substance and meaning for the adults. It plunges into the complex topic of human emotion, something many of us don't understand in the first place, and builds a storyline that lays it out in beautiful, vivid detail. Pixar's Pete Docter got the idea for this movie when he noticed the emotional changes in his daughter as she grew up. Transforming that spark into a feature film required years of research and refinement, consultations with noted psychologists and brain experts, and bouts of frustration and inspiration -- probably enough for a film in itself.

We see it all on the screen through a girl named Riley (Dias), whose life is uprooted when her family moves from Minnesota to San Francisco, from a beautiful home to a dusty rowhouse, bad food, and a strange school. Inside her head, five different emotions are vying for control: Joy (Poehler), Sadness (Smith), Anger (Black), Disgust (Kaling), and Fear (Hader). All are drawn in vibrant colors befitting their functions, but it's Joy who stands out in both her sparkling aura and dominance over the other emotions. They work the control panel and keep track of memory bubbles, although those bubbles look and roll more like marbles or billiard balls. Several important bubbles form Riley's core memories, which in turn create personality islands that direct her thoughts, interests and values. Memory bubbles ship off to long-term memory, and trains of thought roll by every now and then. Believe me, it's much more understandable when you see it.

Joy is trying to keep Sadness in check, wanting Sadness to stop touching memories and turning them sad. During a struggle over this, both of them are whisked out of the control room by the mechanisms that transport memories, along with the core memories Joy is guarding with all her might. With her core memories out of place, Riley begins spiraling into emotional ruin, as her personality islands begin to crumble and her other emotions try to compensate. Joy and Sadness have to get back to headquarters and rebuild the system before all is lost.

This film amazed me with how it could make this topic palatable and enjoyable. It doesn't try to oversimplify its subject matter, even though its main character emotions are predictable: Joy bubbles with happiness, Sadness is always down in the dumps, Anger blows his top, Fear scares at the slightest impulse, and Disgust gets in a few barbs. We get interpretation of our dreams in the tradition of Hollywood (with a very clever homage to the great Saul Bass, if you can spot it) and a journey into the abstract and subconscious. And in the end, without giving away any plot points, we get insight on how our emotions are supposed to work together.

Inside Out, like I said with Wall-E, is a talk-about film. Children will talk about it with their parents, and I gather at some point, it might play a larger role in helping kids understand and deal with their emotions. That's the real value of this film, and it's a shame if that potential isn't realized.

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