Monday, June 22, 2015

Inside Out

The best sequence in the Pixar oeuvre is the montage of Carl and Ellie’s life together early in “Up,” four wordless minutes (even the music grows ever quieter) of brilliantly curated moments that can reduce the most hulking brute to mush. 

Pete Docter, one of the directors of “Up,” co-directs the studio’s big new summer release “Inside Out” (with Ronnie del Carmen), and I’m sad to report it possesses almost none of the effortless charm or gentleness of spirit of “Up” or “WALL-E” (Pixar’s second crowning achievement). If this makes any sense, it is a hard watch, rainforest-dense with plotting, artificially amplified and seemingly afraid of silence. 

The High Concept – and only in fits and starts does “Inside Out” escape the feeling of a concept movie – is that we go inside the head of young Riley, a Minnesota girl whose family relocates to San Francisco for Dad’s job, and meet the five emotions who live and work there: Joy (Amy Poehler), Sadness (Phyllis Smith), Fear (Bill Hader), Anger (Lewis Black), and Disgust (Mindy Kaling). The first four are naturals, but in the absence of an older or younger brother for Riley, Disgust has little to do and should probably have been scrapped. She’s sort of like the old light brown M&M’s; she’s not going to be any kid’s favorite.

The plot – and the movie’s virtually wall-to-wall plot – involves Joy and Sadness getting separated from the others, and later from each other, in the labyrinthine recesses of the mind: there are Memories, and Core Memories, and Long-Term Memory, and a Memory Dump, and Islands (Family Island, Friendship Island, Honesty Island, Hockey Island), and a choo-choo Train of Thought, and Imagination Land, and a studio called Dream Productions, and, and, and…Are you tired yet? I’m exhausted. You get the feeling half the filmmakers’ time was spent in consultation with the theme park designers. We go long stretches without seeing how Joy and Sadness’ odyssey manifests itself in Riley.

The best of the voice work is done not by Poehler or Hader – predictably manic – but by Black, who’s quite funny as Anger, and especially by Smith, whose Sadness, soft-spoken and endlessly apologetic, almost wills herself into non-existence, as if to get out of the way of everyone’s good time, before finally realizing the fundamental role she plays in true happiness. She’s the heart and soul of the movie.

There are a handful of clever ideas along the way, such as the chewing gum jingle that gets stuck in Riley’s head, or the mind worker who throws all of Riley’s piano lessons away except “Chopsticks” and “Heart and Soul.” I also appreciated the visual of the fifth island, Goofball Island, collapsing into the dump. Who among us hasn’t wished we could still get away with the goofball behavior of our youth? 

Unfortunately for us, such light touches are mostly lost amid the noise and the effortful comedy and the droning recitation of place names. “Inside Out” proves again the difficulty of taking it easy.

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