Friday, June 19, 2015

The Life of the Mind: INSIDE OUT

Inside Out is a film so in touch with its protagonist’s emotions it makes them characters unto themselves. The result is one of Pixar’s loveliest conceptual gambits, daring in its simplicity, moving in its surprising dexterity. Certainly the idea of personifying the human brain’s many emotions is not a new one. But what’s new is this film’s sustained commitment to psychological zaniness, finding inventive and satisfying analogues for mental processes without losing a sense of compassion or an elastic sense of humor. A moving evocation of complicated emotions through brilliantly colorful cartoon adventure, it’s a perfect fit for Pixar’s favorite subjects: elaborate contraptions, colorful characters, memorable complications, affectionate teamwork parables, and emotional complexity. This is one of the animation studio’s warmest, most vital films in years.

Here is a film knowledgeable about what it’s like to be eleven, going on twelve, full of conflicting impulses on the bridge between childhood wonder and adult resignation. Our main character is Riley (Kaitlyn Dias), a girl whose loving parents (Diane Lane and Kyle MacLachlan) have decided to move from Minnesota to San Francisco, a prospect as intimidating as it is exciting. Our setting is her brain, amongst the little voices inside her head. Writer-director Pete Docter (responsible for modern classics Monsters, Inc. and Up) imagines a quintet of primary-color cartoon beings sitting behind a control panel in a big pastel room, processing incoming sensory detail and converting them into memories. Most importantly, they’re her emotions, helping her react to the world. Taking charge is Joy (Amy Poehler), but Sadness (Phyllis Smith), Fear (Bill Hader), Disgust (Mindy Kaling), and Anger (Lewis Black) are jostling to make themselves known as well.

The emotions are brought to vivid life in voice performances brimming with a child’s excitable naïveté. Joy isn’t the lead for no good reason. There’s energy and happiness, and character coherence as the five beings make themselves known through one voice. It’s easy to believe these different outlooks on life expressed by their color-coded geometric designs – sunny yellow flower Joy, blobby blue Sadness, wiry purple Fear, broccoli-green Disgust, squat fire-red Anger – add up to one character. They’re treated as figures of fun, predictable in their responses to any given development, and seriously as key components of any healthy mind. You might think a movie built around characters defined by precisely one emotion would grow monotonous, but the performers find remarkable shadings within their set ranges, piling on adjectives, growing complex as they work together to run one mind. Docter and crew find value in every emotion, acknowledging they each have their place.

As they punch buttons and manipulate glowing memory orbs on their way to storage, we see only a blending of their attributes can accomplish the goal. Trouble starts when, struggling to keep Riley joyful after the jarring cross-country move, Joy and Sadness are caught in an accident. They’re left stranded far from the controls, lost in Long Term Memory. The others try their best to keep Riley safe and sane, resulting in mood swings – sarcasm, panic, and outbursts. Meanwhile, Joy and Sadness move through cartoon symbolism – a train of thought, warehouse workers causing forgetfulness, dream production studios, and a dark scary subconscious. This vision of the mind is a world of vibrant colors, candy textures in gleaming mental faculties factories and vast corridors of memories. Joy and Sadness work their way through lands of imagination, abstract thought, core personality traits, and crates of facts and opinions, on the way back to where they belong.

Imagination fills the frame. We meet a forgotten imaginary friend (Richard Kind), glimpse childhood memories, and meet some of Riley’s fears and dreams (scary clowns and towheaded boy bands). Rubbery cartoon mechanics in the mind – splats and bonks, stretchy expressionism and sight gags – tie to a real-world portrayed more drably and realistically, as the wacky emotions’ antics play out subtly across the girl’s face. It’s one of the most simply astonishing feats of animated acting I’ve ever seen. Inside her emotions contort and careen, while on the outside she appears thrillingly natural, a real little girl. It’s a terrific crosscut cause-and-effect, good for gags and heartfelt tenderness. This is as good a metaphor for depression as I’ve ever seen – inner conflict leading to outer discomfort and vice versa – wrapped in a buoyantly entertaining cartoon adventure. Riley is unhappy with her new circumstances and is unsure how to react. Starting over in a new place is difficult.

So is growing older. Memories fade. What once was important to your personality evolves, or disappears. Old happy memories gain bittersweet tints. This all packs quite the wallop. Like Up and Toy Story 3, it gains great power from its recognition of aging’s melancholy inevitability, and the importance of embracing new aspects of life’s journey, stepping forward with those you love. Here there are passages of childhood memory I would compare to The Tree of Life for their precise observation and overwhelming compassion. Moments inside the brain, cartoony though they may be, come freighted with symbolic imagery in vast stretches of psychology transmuted into only-in-animation splendor. There is no villain. Joy’s main goal to keep Riley happy all the time is recognized as unsustainable. In its simplicity, it’s complicated.

And yet it’s also light and lovely, teasing in its complexity. It contains great truths and great feelings without dragging itself down. Great fun is kept aloft by the lovable voices, Pixar-formula cotton-candy plotting (co-written by Meg LeFauvre and Josh Cooley), Michael Giacchino’s chirpy New Age fairy tale score, and a team of animators imbuing each frame with buoyant personality. It could make you laugh and cry and feel happy for doing so, indulging every single emotion at the controls of your responses as we speak. Another great Pixar confection, Inside Out is sweet entertainment for the whole family. And like the best family films, it imagines a lively multicolored scenario a little exciting, a little scary, as bright and funny as it is wise. In a world that can be full of forced good feelings and manic positivity, how wonderful to find such a fast, clever, entertaining argument for embracing every feeling in your emotional palate.

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