Wednesday, July 15, 2015

Heard The Concept, Seen The Movie: Inside Out

The Good: Decent voice acting, Moments of emotion that work
The Bad: Plot is exceptionally forced, Overblown concept, Bland protagonist
The Basics: Inside Out is Disney/Pixar's attempt to make a psychological exploration film, but it falls apart under any real scrutiny.

The other day, my wife was pitching to me an idea that I'm still kicking around in my head. After a number of spinnings of the Susanne Sundfor album The Silicone Veil (reviewed here!), she said, "I think you should do a blog each month about all the things you wanted to review, but couldn't muster up the enthusiasm and energy to do a sophisticated analysis. There should be a one-paragraph review for all the things you went to review but just stopped caring about before you tried to write the detailed review." I know that, at the time, she was just annoyed because she did not like that particular album and was sick of hearing it - and, to be fair, I was stuck trying to review it because it was so mediocre - but it was an intriguing idea in its own right. I might be one of the few reviewers who feels a complete sense of "ho-hum, meh, this review is just not writing itself" about the new Disney/Pixar film Inside Out. But that is where I am; if I were to take my wife's suggestion, Inside Out would definitely have been in the group review with a very simple "not worth it."

Inside Out is garnering almost universal praise from critics everywhere and, not to be contrarian, it's an okay film, but nothing truly exceptional. There's no point in me being the 1000th reviewer to point out that the concept is virtually identical to the 1991 FOX sitcom Herman's Head - which I watched, so the film's "hook" seemed instantly unoriginal to me - but one of the things I haven't seen from other critics is that the concept of Inside Out is made instantly unambitious by the fact that the protagonist is an average American girl.

For the five people who have not yet heard the concept, Inside Out is a film that focuses on the emotions inside the head of Riley Anderson, an eleven year-old girl from Minnesota, whose family moves to San Francisco. Personified inside her mind are Joy, Sadness, Disgust, Fear, and Anger and the five negotiate with one another to control Riley. The plot to Inside Out - I'll get to that later - is almost incidental; the entire point of the film is the concept. Writers Pete Docter, Josh Cooley, and Meg LeFauve are trying to illustrate how emotions work inside a girl's head and how they adapt to obstacles. Regardless of the execution, the purpose of the film is instantly baffling: Inside Out is of no use to children, who lack the metaconscious awareness to truly understand abstractions like the personification of emotion and adults who see Inside Out should either have the emotional awareness to get the concept instantly or are probably sociopaths (in other words, if you don't understand how your emotions are working by the time you reach adulthood, you probably have a personality disorder of some sort!). Children are too young to have developed empathy and adults watching the film are more likely to be bored by the obviousness of the concept than entertained by it. The purpose becomes confused then because Pixar is clearly trying to go for something sophisticated - the sheer volume of emotions expressed and moments intended to play off the viewer's empathy - but the only way the film actually works is on an entertainment level.

On a psychological level, Inside Out becomes incredibly problematic in that most of the action occurs while Riley is asleep and the stakes in play postulate that Riley could have a complete psychotic break and/or suffer from a serious memory issue while she is sleeping. The basic plot of Inside Out is that Riley is moved from Minnesota to San Fransisco and her expectations are instantly upended; the brownstone her family moves into is not what she expected, the moving truck is delayed so she has to camp out on her bedroom floor and the pizza she and her mom go to get for comfort food is covered in broccoli (which Riley dislikes). After a bad first day at her new school, Riley lets Anger and Sadness take over and she is sent to her room as punishment. Riley then falls asleep, but inside her head, Sadness breaks into the core memories and, in the process Sadness and Joy get whisked away to long-term memory and have to find their way back.

Their quest to return to headquarters is aided by Bing Bong, Riley's imaginary friend, and along the way, the core islands of Riley's mind become disconnected from Headquarters and their existence is threatened. The analogy becomes very troubling there: that one bad day of not particularly traumatic events can lead to the collapse of how a person thinks and feels, is somewhat ridiculous. The mind has internal defenses outside the basic emotions to protect core memory and to protect certain associations. It takes things like traumatic new core memories - death of a loved one at a young age, abuse, etc. - or physical injury (an ax to the brain, severing the connective tissue between the brain's hemispheres, etc.) to destroy those connections. But, Sadness getting curious and looking at core memory nearly makes Riley into an entirely different person in Inside Out and to buy the menaces Sadness and Joy face on their journey back to Headquarters, viewers have to buy the premise that the mundane usurption of expectations could lead to a complete psychotic break. But then, Inside Out would be a much harder sell for viewers if Sadness was simply operating Riley for a time after her move to San Francisco.

Which leads me to the real problem with Inside Out. Riley is a healthy girl going through average problems. Inside Out could have achieved all of its goals by having a much more extraordinary protagonist. Seeing inside the head of a manic depressive, watching how difficult the emotional negotiations are for someone when they are traumatized, contrasting the emotional thought patterns of a healthy person with one who suffers from trauma, mental illness or abuse would educate children, give adults something to empathize with and start discussions for those who suffer those conditions with those people in their life who do not understand it. Moreover, the plot would not simply be a contrived adventure piece then; the concept would effectively sell the story and plot without the need for anything inorganic or forced.

Amy Poehler does a decent job providing the voice of Joy; she's actually so good that I did not feel like I was watching Poehler or listening to any one of her routines while watching Inside Out. Similarly, Bill Hader is good as Fear, though Lewis Black is used exactly like one would expect for Anger.

Inside Out is one of those films that becomes worse the more one thinks about it - like how can Bing Bong be running around the memory centers of Riley's brain instead of being trapped by his very nature on Imagination Island?! If it could be used to teach selfish young people how to empathize with others, it might be useful, but instead it encourages a very ego-centric interpretation of the film, especially for unsophisticated, undeveloped younger audiences. As a result, the more I thought of the film as an average film, the more it upset me; it's a movie where the concept could work, but the execution at the script level does not. Instead, Pixar and Disney made a brightly-lit, well-voiced film that has forced conflict and only a surface understanding of the complex concepts it attempts to explore.

For other Pixar films, please check out my reviews of:
Monsters University
Toy Story 3
The Incredibles
Monsters, Inc.


For other movie reviews, please check out my Film Review Index Page for an organized listing!

© 2015 W.L. Swarts. May not be reprinted without permission.
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