As of this writing, Inside Out and Jurassic World have been duking it out for three weekends, and Inside Out finally seems to have topped Jurassic World this past weekend, robbing it of the title of the highest-grossing film never to win a weekend. Not that it matters; Inside Out will be hugely profitable and has earned Pixar its best reviews since Toy Story 3.
And yet, were it not for the disappointment of the intervening three films (though I think Brave is severely underrated), I think Inside Out‘s reviews would be a shade less rapturous. It’s a delightful film, of course, with an incredibly fertile premise, wonderful animation, incredible voice acting, and a healthy mixture of laughter and tears. But for my money, it falls just a little short of Pixar’s old heights.
(I would talk about the opening short, Lava, first–but I don’t want to sour my mood just yet. I’ll save it for the end.)
11-year-old Riley (Kaitlyn Dias) moves from Minnesota to San Francisco with her parents (Diane Lane, Kyle MacLachlan), and is soon beset by various trials: their new apartment is dingy, their belongings are tied up in transit, her father is preoccupied with business problems, and, missing her old friends, she feels isolated and frustrated at her new school. She begins to suffer mood swings, and is increasingly unable to connect with her parents, to play her once-beloved hockey, or to adjust to her new life in anyway. In desperation, she buys a bus ticket for Minnesota (having stolen her mother’s credit card), and resolves to run away, but as she grows increasingly numb, it may not make much difference.
That’s what this story would be on the outside. But we know what Riley does not–that her emotions are in literal disarray.
For Riley is managed by five distinct emotions: Joy (Amy Poehler), Sadness (Phyllis Smith), Anger (Lewis Black), Fear (Bill Hader), and Disgust (Mindy Kaling). Joy has from Riley’s birth taken the dominant role, and many of Riley’s stored memories are yellow–the color of Joy. The other emotions have their roles, but Joy generally tries to minimize Sadness’ effectiveness, with mixed success. Riley has a set of core memories which form the basis for her various Islands of Personality–Family, Friendship, Hockey, Honesty, and Goofball (Joy’s favorite), and when Joy and Sadness have an altercation over a new core memory (Riley breaking into tears in front of her new schoolmates), they are accidentally sucked up a tube and deposited in the depths of Riley’s memory bank.
As Joy and Sadness struggle to get back to the emotions’ command center, the three remaining emotions try to run the show, and the assertive Anger generally overrides the timid Fear and apathetic Disgust, gradually pushing Riley into her aforementioned breakdown. Joy and Sadness find an ally in Bing Bong (Richard Kind), Riley’s old imaginary friend who bides his time, anticipating the day when they will finally go to the Moon. The three of them must ride the Train of Thought, interfere with Dream Production (including a detour to the Subconscious), and somehow survive being broken down in Abstract Thought.
Naturally, Joy and Sadness make it back and all is set right by the end, even as Joy dismisses a mysterious new control-panel button labelled “Puberty”…
Inside Out functions best the less plotted it is. The first act of the film, focusing on Riley’s growing up and difficult adjustment to San Francisco life, in particular eschews normal narrative rhythms in favor of detailing how the emotions work and how the family’s move to San Francisco plays out. Careful parallels are drawn between the emotions’ actions (and the operations of Riley’s mental machinery) and her external actions, and those scenes, here and in the film’s later stages, are the film’s most successful, in part because they are the most universal.
It’s when Joy and Sadness are inadvertently removed from the picture and Riley’s life begins to spin out of control that the film begins to feel just a bit contrived. The mechanism by which Joy and Sadness are ejected from the command center is rather strange, and I’m not sure what the real-life analogue would be, if one were intended–a sudden imbalance in brain chemistry, perhaps?
It’s worth noting that after the disastrous first day, the rest of the film’s events seem to take place over a couple days–a week, at most–by which time Riley has seemingly lost her interest in hockey, alienated herself from her old friends, and become frustrated and detached from her parents, to the point that she steals her mother’s credit card, buys a bus ticket, and begins running away before her change of heart. But as the film progresses, the balance between the internal and external worlds shifts in favor of the internal, so it seems as if Riley is essentially shifting on an emotional dime.
Because we see what’s going on on the inside, we can buy it, but when you step back and realize what’s going on on the outside, it becomes rather disturbing…and rather hard to swallow. In particular, the running-away theme seems rather hackneyed; I know children and teenagers run away in real life, but for a girl who has been otherwise happy and fairly well-adjusted to do so so abruptly would, in real life, suggest a profound mental disturbance.
Inside Out has some incredibly dark implications, and I’m not sure the film fully appreciates that. I’m not saying I wanted a harrowing depiction of mental illness–though such a development of this premise would be interesting–but even remembering the volatile emotions of my own adolescence, Riley’s troubles seem to be more profound than the film acknowledges.
And while the scenes of Joy, Sadness, and Bing Bong working their way through the mind are often ingenious (the Abstract Thought scene is one of the cleverest things Pixar has ever done), they take away from the internal/external contrast which is, for my money, the most resonant element of the film. (A montage during the end credits shows the internal processes of a wide variety of characters, and it’s absolutely hysterical.) And the more relatable the film is, the better it is. The ultimate fate of Bing Bong is clearly–too clearly, even–designed to be a major tear-jerking moment, but the climactic reconciliation of Riley and her parents is for me the far more affecting scene, because it taps so much into one’s emotions about one’s own parents. (I’m very close to mine, so the scene was especially moving for me.)
Really, Inside Out could have used another 10-15 minutes to balance the story a little better. I’m not sure why it didn’t take them; Pixar has been willing to go over the 100-minute mark before (and the 110-minute mark at least three times), so why Inside Out runs only 94 minutes is a mystery to me.
These issues aside, it’s a generally delightful film, a major step up from the disappointing Monsters University. The script, by director Pete Docter, Meg LeFauve, and Josh Cooley, is incredibly clever and frequently insightful (it was a worthy winner of Original Screenplay at my Six-Month Film Awards). It does falter a little when it tries too hard; the “TripleDent Gum” jingle gag isn’t quite as funny as the filmmakers thought, and there’s a very strange Chinatown reference which seems completely out of place given the film otherwise avoiding such humor.
The animation is, of course, of an extremely high standard, the design of the inner mind being both beautiful and ingenious. The characters are simply and effectively designed, and there are some rather stunning images; the opening moments, depicting Joy emerging from the void as Riley opens her eyes for the first time, are sublime. Michael Giacchino’s score may not reach the heights of his other work for Pixar (like his Oscar-winning work on Up), but it’s quite good in its own right.
And the voice acting is nothing short of brilliant. I mentioned in my Six-Month Awards post that Amy Poehler would have been #1 or #2 in my Best Actress race had I counted vocal performances; she brings such warmth and energy to the table that you never doubt her for a second. Even when Joy is being aggravating (particularly when she tries to marginalize Sadness), Poehler’s wit and sincerity ensures that we are always on her side. Phyllis Smith’s dry, low voice is perfectly suited to Sadness, and her deadpan quips are consistently hilarious. Black was practically born to play Anger, and gets some of my very favorite lines; I’m amazed they got away with “There are no bears in San Francisco.” “I saw a hairy guy once. He looked like a bear.” Hader is great fun as the nebbishy Fear, and while Kaling is rather underused as Disgust (the least well-defined of the emotions), she makes the most of her waspish lines.
I first encountered Kind in his role as the protagonist’s pathetic brother in A Serious Man, and his bright, honking voice is just right for the sweetly tragic Bing Bong. The character doesn’t quite live up to Matt Zoller Seitz’ poetic description:
He’s a creature of pure benevolence who only wants Riley to have fun and be happy. His body is made of cotton candy, he has a red wagon that can fly and that leaves a rainbow trail, and his serene acceptance of his obsolescence gives him a heroic dimension. He is a Ronin of positivity who still pledges allegiance to the Samurai that released him years ago.
But Kind is quite funny and touching in the role, giving the character a vaudevillian quality–a kind of sad clown–which it’s hard not to appreciate. And although Dias, Lane, and MacLachlan don’t get quite as much to do as I’d like, they all do just fine.
Inside Out has met with the best reviews for a Pixar film since Toy Story 3, and is making the money to match. Whether it, like that film, gets into the Best Picture lineup remains to be seen (and there’s still The Good Dinosaur to come this fall), but so far it’s easily one of the best films of the year.
And then there’s Lava, the musical story of two volcanoes trying to fuck.
Admittedly, that’s about the crassest possible summary I could give, but it seems entirely appropriate given its mediocrity.
Told in song, it tells of a volcano–a he-volcano (Kuana Torres Kahele)–who presides over an atoll and watches the birds and beasts find true love, and who longs for someone to love–I’m sorry, to lava. Time passes, the waters gradually rise above his head, and he seems doomed to eternal loneliness. But then a she-volcano (Napua Greig) emerges from the sea, singing her own song of longing, and eventually he erupts and they are brought together forever, singing “I lava you” in perpetuity.
It’s a thin story even for a short, and the lack of characterization given to the volcanoes doesn’t make it any more compelling. The song, written by director James Ford Murphy (and principally sung by Kahele, I believe), is repetitive and lyrically pretty weak. And speaking as someone who loves puns, the “love”/”lava” wordplay is about the weakest shit I’ve heard in a long time.
The character designs are, if anything, even worse. The he-volcano is scarcely anthropomorphized–he looks sort of like Jabba the Hutt–but the she-volcano has foliage which suggests long, flowing hair, along with soft, feminine features. The he-volcano is shaped like a mountain, but the she-volcano is shaped, if not exactly like a human woman, more like one than any mountain I’ve ever seen. It’s a stupid design choice which only further weakens the piece.
And the volcanoes have these weird Clutch Cargo mouths which move far more fluidly than the rest of their faces. It’s kind of shocking how bad it actually is, given Pixar’s normal standard.
I don’t have a score for Lava, but let’s say…25 for the story (and it only gets that much because the idea of doing it with two volcanoes is at least faintly novel), 45 for the acting (the singing is fine, but does little in terms of developing the characters), and 25 for the technical execution…that gives us 95, which averages to about 32/100. That seems about fair.
Because it really kind of sucked.