Thursday, June 25, 2015

Inside Out (2015)

Director: Pete Docter
Writer: Pete Docter, Meg LeFauve, Josh Cooley
Editor: Kevin Nolting
Score: Michael Giacchino
Producer: Jonas Rivera
Starring: Amy Poehler, Phyllis Smith, Kaitlyn Dias, Richard Kind, Diane Lane, Kyle Maclachlan, Lewis Black, Bill Hader, Mindy Kaling
Distribution: Walt Disney Studios Motion Pictures
Length: 1 hr. 34 min.

The action of Inside Out revolves around two characters who get lost and must return to the place they came from.  Early in the film, not long after this conflict is introduced, the camera shows us these characters and then pans over to show us their destination in the distance.  As the camera moves, it passes over a plot of land covered with a byzantine maze of pipes and machinery, hinting at the complexity that will come along their journey.  Does Inside Out deliver on this promised complexity?

For the most part, yes, in that Inside Out is a film that must pull off a difficult balancing act, and it succeeds more than it fails.  The film is about the personified emotions of Riley, an 11-year-old girl from Minnesota who is moving with her family to San Francisco.  Her emotions, Joy, Sadness, Fear, Anger, and Disgust, struggle with helping Riley adjust to her new environment.  The key word in that last sentence is "helping"; the five emotions are portrayed as caretakers, concerned for Riley's well-being and trying their best to hold it together.  The balancing act Inside Out needs to pull off is that it needs to convince us that Riley is a real person whose consciousness matters and not just a vehicle piloted by five people who just happen to have different personalities.

To this end, the film uses the emotions as accents.  We find that Riley has her own identity, a state of being in which she is capable of conscious thought, but incapable of feeling.  Though the personified emotions frequently seem to voice what Riley is thinking, we get the sense that it is because their thoughts stem from hers, and not that they dictate what she thinks.  When they attempt to plant an idea in Riley's head, they note that it will only work if she accepts the idea, and after that they no longer have control over it.  They act only as a sort of filter for her thoughts and memories, which are mercifully represented as inanimate objects, and thanks to this they don't corrupt the film's reality.  Instead, they illustrate something all people can identify with: The very real condition that we are not totally in control of our emotions.  Riley determines the personified emotions' goals, but she does not have control over how they choose to act on her, forming a simple but effective representation of the apparent disconnect we feel between our emotions and our deliberate thoughts. 

So, the film is able to make us identify with Riley.  Having cleared that hurdle, it must make us able to identify with the personified emotions.  Though each of them does mostly adhere to the emotion they represent, they are all capable of expressing a full range of feeling; which emotion they represent corresponds more with what they think is important for Riley to have a good life.  Anger believes in fairness, Fear believes in safety, and Disgust believes in avoiding conflict.  Joy, at the start of the film, is venerated as the one of whom all other emotions should act in service; the film later questions the conflation between feeling joy and achieving emotional fulfillment.

Sadness is a special case because she doesn't seem to have an idea of what's important, and Joy seems confused as to what purpose Sadness serves because of that.  Sadness has a defeatist attitude about everything; where the other emotions propose what actions they should take to accomplish what they think they need for Riley to be emotionally fulfilled, Sadness has no goals.  The film's greatest insight is that the inaction that comes with sadness creates an openness.  When it is impossible for you to resolve a situation on your own, sadness creates a blank slate on which other people can attempt to etch answers.  We see that Riley thinks she needs to be outwardly happy for her parents to be happy, creating a strain in their relationship that can only be resolved with her parents' input.  Sadness makes that possible.

There is one thing the film must do that is even more difficult than balancing the sense that Riley is a real person with the plot surrounding the personified emotions.  I said before that the film attempts to address the conflation of joy with emotional fulfillment.  But what is "emotional fulfillment?"  Can we really say that the reason we care about Riley having a good relationship with her parents is because it means she can be "happy" when the entire point of the film is that happiness shouldn't hold dominance over other emotions?

The film does not answer the question of what "fulfillment" is in any intelligible way, but its visual language is very effective at carrying across the notion of "fulfillment" on a purely emotional level.  Each of Riley's emotions is color-coded, while her state of being incapable of feeling is associated with shades of grey.  When she feels lost and confused about what she's supposed to feel, we see a shot of her walking down a road claustrophobically walled off on either side with buildings; the scene is grey and muted, and the end of the road is invisible in fog, leading to an uncertain future.  When Riley's feelings are clear to her, the world she moves through is lit with purples and yellows, and the buildings are only visible on one side of the frame, giving her space.

Parts of the film are simplistic in a way that dampens its emotional impact somewhat; cutting directly from the image of the personified emotions pushing buttons or pulling levers to the image of Riley performing actions makes the depiction of Riley as a person rather than a puppet a little shakier than would be ideal.  We're also never really clear on what it would mean for Riley to be incapable of feeling, but if we can recall that in real life depression is described as an emptiness of feeling, the stakes come into focus pretty starkly.  Finally, it takes almost the whole film for us to hear Riley's independent take on the whole situation without her emotions voicing the same things she's thinking, but I am glad the movie gave Riley the chance to speak for herself at the end of the film.

Inside Out makes the best of a difficult premise, and while its central theme - the importance of accepting sadness - is not exactly new, it does better than other films at explaining exactly what it is that sadness does for us that's important.  On top of the well-conceived visual language, the animation is stunning, and in one scene the film plays with the art design and style of animation used for its characters.  The non-physicality of the emotions is highlighted by the way their bodies seem loosely defined at the edges, in a barely noticeable way.  

It's not a masterpiece; it relies too heavily on cliché (positing broccoli as one of the things Riley hates most possibly being the most egregious) and its sense of humor leaves a lot to be desired.  But overall these things don't dampen the experience too much.  The film is preceded by an animated short called Lava, which is awful and shockingly irritating.  It is, however, worth sitting through for the sake of seeing Inside Out.

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