Tuesday, August 4, 2015

"Inside Out" Review: Not The Best We Have Come To Expect From Pixar But At Least It's Not A Sequel

From that opening subject line you might be thinking that I didn't care for the latest Pixar/Disney animated feature, which is far from the truth. There are a lot of things to enjoy about Inside Out such as its cute and clever premise of giving our emotional insecurities actual faces and Pixar's usual blend of striking visuals with great emotional weight, but with that same token there are a number of things that don't work so well which mostly stems from its inability to stretch this 30 minute premise into a nearly two hour film. Read the full review after the break.

Review Vital Stats:   
Projector Type: Digital 2D             
Film Rating: PG
Film Runtime: 1 hr 34 min
Studio: Walt Disney Pictures
Release Date: June 19, 2015

Loves: The Incredibles, Finding Nemo, Toy Story 1-2-3, Wall-E
Likes: Monsters Inc., Ratatouille, A Bug's Life, Up
Neutral:  Cars, Brave, Monsters University
Hates: Cars 2
The animated short "Lava"?: Cute and in some ways better than the actual movie it preceeds.

Our story begins in just about the only way it possibly could, with the birth of Riley (voiced by Kaitlyn Dias). However, we don't get to witness her birth from the outside like normal, instead we have a front row seat from within Riley's subconscious mind where we see the manifestation of Riley's very first emotion, Joy (voiced by Amy Poehler). Riley is just an infant however and soon the joy of seeing her parents for the first time transforms into a range of other emotions that begin popping up such as Sadness (voiced by Phyllis Smith), Fear (voiced by Bill Hader), Disgust (voiced by Mindy Kaling) and of course Anger (voiced by Lewis Black). The rest of the film is then told through the perspective of Riley's omnipresent emotional counterparts as we are privy to a montage of Riley's early childhood where we see that despite their inherent individual natures, all of Riley's disparate emotions have the best intentions towards helping her grow up into a fully functional and mentally agile adult.

Riley has the stereotypical happy life that every child wishes for, on top of having two loving parents she is active in sports, has a great social life and gets good grades in school. She is the perfect example of a well balanced and outgoing young girl, that is until the fateful day arrives where her family must uproot and move to a new city far away from everything and everyone she knows. Soon Riley finds herself surrounded by a strange new environment filled with strange new people and new challenges that will test her emotional growth to a point she might not be ready for. That many changes at once is enough to freak anyone out, especially an 11 year old girl who sometimes lets her emotions get the better of her...quite literally.

Showing the inner turmoil and complexity of the human mind through a set of emotional avatars is a brilliant idea and immediately upon hearing that concept seems like a perfect fit for a studio like Pixar, a studio that has made a business built around exploring the human condition through unusual and sometimes fantastical circumstances. Pixar, for all its recent faults and missteps, has always been at the top of its game whenever dealing with such subject matter that provides new and interesting ways to see ourselves. Whether it was through the toys in our rooms, the monsters under our beds or the fish in the sea, they always have an enlightening perspective on what it is to be human and their new film Inside Out is no different in that regard.

Now it is well documented that I have not been a big fan of Pixar's recent history. Cars 2, Monsters University and Brave all hit one after another with each one making every new release from the once mighty Pixar a case for cautious optimism as opposed to the general excitement that had surrounded their earlier releases. While Inside Out isn't exactly Pixar at the top of their game, it is by far the most complete package they have delivered in a long time. From the vibrant visuals to the imaginative way they show the inner workings of our minds, Pixar has created something that can appeal to adults just as easily as children which in the past had always been their greatest strength and up until now has been a missing key ingredient in all their recent work.

Indeed everyone from all ages can relate to watching this motley crew of emotions as they try to steer Riley down the right path by keeping her social, academic and family life together while dodging all life's obstacles that get thrown at her. Who hasn't had to deal with being displaced at one time or another whether it is moving from their hometown or simply going to a new school? Finding new friends and learning to fit in isn't just something kids have to deal with at school, but as adults we must also forge new relationships and become comfortable in our new environments whenever we switch jobs. By far though the most entertaining and successful part of Inside Out is how the film visualizes all this through these three dimensional emoticons which guide us to the decisions that make us who we are.

Nothing would make me happier than to end this review right here and to give Inside Out all the praise in the world, however there are a couple serious problems that the film, regardless of all its successes, just can't overcome. That is the fact that no matter how clever the script and idea are nor how beautiful the animation is, Pixar was unable to find a way to make this material compelling for an entire feature length film. The problems first arise (coincidentily )just when Riley's world begins to crumble. It's a turning point for the film as it ceases to be about Riley and instead decides to focus more on the emotions within her who after an accident find themselves on this journey through Riley's subconscious mind which is adversely effecting her in all the wrong ways.

Earlier it was mentioned how both children and adults can relate to the film, well there should have been a big asterisk next to that statement because while it is true for the first half of the film, the second half is purely kid centric. In an attempt to extend the premise far beyond its means, Pixar has resorted to filling the back half of the film with a lot of fluff that will likely only appeal to the kids in the audience. The biggest evidence of this is when we are introduced to Bing Bong (voiced by Richard Kind) who is Riley's former imaginary friend and clearly a character made specifically to engage the younger viewers. Bing Bong offers no real benefit to the story other than being our zany guide through the different parts of Riley's mind and serves more as a reminder who this film ultimately was made for.

What makes the second half of the film even more perplexing is how all this kiddie stuff happening inside Riley's mind (such as a trip through her imagination and dream land) is intercut with some surprisingly dark moments happening with Riley. As we watch Riley delve deeper into darkness it is constantly contrasted with this bright and bubbly world within her mind that has Bing Bong bouncing all over the place as Riley learns how to lie, cheat and steal in the real world. As she quickly shifts from well balanced pre-teen girl into a full on recluse it is immediately apparent that those two styles just don't mix well. What's really bizarre is how the film shifts from the more positive message to kids about being in control and taking responsibility for our actions into this idea that perhaps we have no real control over our emotions and hopefully we someday will just become happy again simply because Joy and Sadness find their way back to the control center. Uh, what?

However, much like how Pixar pulled off the ending of Brave after a misguided second half, Inside Out does come together again at the end with a deeply emotional conclusion that will be difficult for anyone to not get invested in, even just a little. Inside Out is one of those films where you can clearly see the vast amount of love and care that went into its production. There isn't one area you can point to and say that someone was cutting corners, from the amazing visuals to the endearing characters, this isn't just an assembly line product made to sell plush toys (although that is likely to happen). But at the end of the day there is just no denying how uneven and disjointed the film becomes during its second half. While Inside Out is a return to form for Pixar in many ways, that still doesn't change the fact that the clever idea behind the film should have been the opening short to another more fully realized full length feature that actually benefited from an extra hour or so of screen time.


I get no joy from feeling this way towards a new Pixar film. Nobody was rooting for this one more than myself upon it's initial reveal, but the truth of the matter is that Inside Out runs out of gas early on and never fully recovers. It's bizarre and mixed messaging towards kids and management of their feelings along with a last half that seems to be treading water more than adding anything truly substantial to the initial promise of the clever premise leaves Inside Out in a weird sort of limbo that never truly escapes. It's not bad, but it's also far from the best we used to expect from the once untainted animation studio.

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