November 3, 2015

Inside Out (2015)

For about 15 years the title Pixar Animation Studios was effectively a synonym for quality in film. Animated hits like Monsters Inc, Finding Nemo, Wall-E and The Incredibles presented stunningly creative stories and characters. It's not simply that the animation was good and the design work beautiful either: the screenplays and storylines of Pixar's films were just perfectly sculpted and composed. It was an unparalleled run of movies, really only broken by Cars in 2006.

Then there came the Disney buyout, and the sudden new focus on making sequels to earlier hits. Cars 2 (2011) was Pixar's first - and thankfully only - all-out stinker, and Monsters University (2013) was a decidedly mediocre and unnecessary prequel. The one original Pixar film between 2010 and 2014 was Brave, and while it was a wonderfully enjoyable film it did seem considerably scrappier in terms of plot and structure than earlier classics.

All that in mind, it's a tremendous relief to watch Pete Docter's Inside Out. It's a fantastic film - one of the best I have seen this year - and it returns Pixar to doing precisely what it does best: making beautiful and imaginative all-ages films that use strange and fanciful ideas to explore very universal themes and emotions. This is a must-see film.

The film is based around the 11 year-old Riley, who moves with her parents from the comforts of Minnesota to a new and unfamiliar home in San Francisco. The experience obviously inspires a range of emotional reactions within her - mostly negative - and those thought processes are represented by personified representations inside her head. Joy, Sadness, Anger, Disgust and Fear.

If you're anything like me, you can probably recall an American sitcom titled Herman's Head that basically used a similar premise. Inside Out takes the concept much, much further, however, not just using people-as-emotions as an engine for comedy but actually working out and developing a method of making the abstract act of human thinking something that's both tangible and easy to understand. Simply in terms of clever ideas Inside Out is Pixar's smartest film since Monsters Inc, and it's arguably even cleverer. How can one visualise the subconscious, or imagination, or abstract thought? How can you express, in visual and narrative terms, the act of forgetting something, or confusing your opinions with facts, or memories changing from ones that inspire happiness to ones that inspire sadness? Peter Docter has clearly thought about these issues a lot, because there's not one challenge in the entire film that he doesn't meet and overcome.

Of course all of the clever visualisations of thought processes would be meaningless if Inside Out didn't have a solid story through which to experience them. In this regard Docter presents a wonderfully paced and plotted, albeit traditional adventure. A mishap in the control centre of Riley's mind sees Joy and Sadness thrown out into Riley's memory, and they must race to get back. While they're gone, an increasingly despondent Riley can only react to the world around her using the three remaining personifications: Fear, Disgust and Anger. It's not only an excuse for solid comedy, it's a brilliant representation of how a child often reacts to sudden and unwanted change.

The film's narrative transforms its characters, as both Joy and Sadness come to realise and appreciate Sadness' worth in dictating parts of Riley's life. The film's climax includes moments of joy and sadness. I'm not ashamed to admit I got a little teary in between the laughs.

This is a wonderfully rich and intelligent animated film for all ages. It's got so much depth it's going to be a joy to rewatch again over the coming years. Pixar's not simply back on track: they've created another animated masterpiece.

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