If I had a nickel for every instance someone asked me “what the hell were you thinking?” I would be the one yelling “you’re fired” as I announced my bid to run for president of the United States sporting the world’s most peculiar comb-over. Alas, I can’t claim exclusive rights to receiving said inquiry as I’m sure all of my fellow Outlaws – along with every other anthropoid on the planet – have been asked that question at least one time during their blissful existence.
Fortunately (or unfortunately depending on your perspective), Disney’s Pixar studio tries to explain just exactly what is going on inside all of our minds with their latest brainchild – pun intended – Inside Out.
For those unfamiliar, the film can best be summed up as a kind of Herman’s Head for the preteen crowd. The main psychological subject of the film is Riley (voiced by Kaitlyn Dias) who is introduced via a montage of scenes from her life starting at birth and wrapping up at her present age of 12. During this series of significant life snippets, we are also presented with the five fuzzy (literally, not figuratively) emotional characters living inside Riley’s head. They include Joy (Amy Poehler ), Sadness (Phyllis Smith), Fear (Bill Hader), Anger (Lewis Black) and Disgust (Mindy Kaling). It doesn’t take long to determine all five emotional traits need to work together to help manage how Riley reacts to the world around her, with the overall goal of keeping her generally happy. This makes Joy out to be the unspoken leader of the group while the others are often stifled and forced to express their personalities in minute dosages.
When I first viewed the official trailers for Inside Out I wasn’t very impressed. Most of the voice actors did nothing for me (more on that soon) and absolutely nothing screamed out to me ‘must see.’ As the film’s release date inched closer, the so-called professional reviews started pouring in, espousing outright acclaim and asserting that Pixar was back and this film was one of their best. Being a huge fan of animation and a self-admitted Pixar uber-devotee, I caved into the onslaught of critical reviews – which I rarely do, good or bad – and took in a matinee showing on opening weekend. Of course, my parents treating for the film and dinner afterwards may have played a small role in my last-minute change of heart.
So what was the final prognosis? Let’s just say I should have just met up with my parents for dinner after the film’s 94-minute runtime. Before I have 99.9% of the global population preparing a guillotine for my arrival, I want to make it perfectly clear I didn’t hate Inside Out as the film really did shine for me in certain respects. Being the fairly positive guy that I am, let’s start with the positive before my mind wanders into the negative.
What had me Thinking Happy Thoughts:
1) Score one for Ingenuity
I’m not going to beat around the proverbial bush on this one, Pixar knocks it out of the park when it comes to the creativity department, and Inside Out is no exception. As one might expect, Disney did consult with some well-to-do psychologists; however, even they admitted to not knowing what the producers and writers were going to do with their input. The simple yet incredibly creative method in which this movie depicts the inner workings of the human brain so even a 13-year-old mind (much like my own) can potentially comprehend somewhat complicated concepts is a stroke of intellectual genius. And this is coming from someone who is far from a psychologist… very far. Mother Outlaw, who is a licensed marriage and family therapist, was so thoroughly impressed she immediately went to work online acquiring the figures from the film so the children at her school could use them as tools for expressing their emotions more comfortably. Chalk one up for psychology and the Disney merchandising department!
2) Depressingly Deep
Don’t let the subtitle fool you… well, not entirely anyway. Even though Pixar’s latest outing tends to delve into gloomier territory over previous efforts (more on that later), it does so in a thought-provoking way, specifically when it comes to the topic of faded memories. Again, Inside Out cleverly translates in an overly-simple but ingenious manner some of the reasons our mind tends to hang on to certain memories over others. An impressive feat for a movie featuring brightly colored and abnormally shaped critters living in what looks like a world made of glowing Skittles.
3) Candy for the Eyes
Keeping on that train of thought (which is another fun reference addressed within the film), it should go without saying that the folks at Pixar seem to outdo themselves with each new release when it comes to visual presentation. Inside Out follows in the same tradition: the amount of detail and texture on almost every object and character is nothing short of mesmerizing. Advancement in technology is only half the battle, but the other half is using it to its full effect… yes that was another pun. I happened to see this film in 3D; however, it probably wasn’t necessary and your viewing mileage may vary depending on how much you love or hate 3D projection in general.
4) Pixar Shoots & Scores
As most within the Outlaw’s quaint little (very little) community may already know, I’m what you might label a hockey nut. My passion for the sport knows no bounds, and I’ve been known to forgo the consumption of edible nourishment just so I could afford my semi-annual ice hockey league dues. (NOTE: For those who are concerned, beer doesn’t fall under the above-mentioned category, and thankfully was still consumed.) My belabored point being, I truly delighted in the fact Riley loves hockey, too. On an even deeper level, I connected with the subplot point more than I thought I would because it was a passion she acquired and shared with her parents. It’s a dynamic that evolved almost identically between me and my parental units, so it literally hit home.
With the positive points in the rear view, it’s unfortunately time to move on to the negative. There’s a lot on my mind here so I’ll just start my biggest gripe which pretty much encompasses the other perceived negatives that follow it.
What had me Down in the Dumps:
1) No Humor “Inside” or “Out”
While Pixar hit it out of the park in the heartfelt touchy-feely department, they truly swung and missed in the humor department. For a guy who can find amusement from a paper bag blowing in the wind, there was only one instance during the entire runtime that an audible laugh resonated from my voice box. Now, before I continue complaining like a curmudgeonly old man about the young whippersnappers running across my lawn, I realize (from what I heard after the fact anyway) Inside Out was not meant to be as happy-go-lucky when compared to Pixar’s past works. Unfortunately, one of the reasons I go to Pixar films is for the infusion of sharp humor that skews to the adults in the audience while also keeping their small army of sugar-infused mini-humanoids from somehow yelling louder than the 7.1 THX audio.
Regrettably, minus a few clever moments, the rare displays of humor seemed to slant heavily towards the slap-sticky kiddie category. It was almost as if the writers were trying to compensate for the more complex psychological content which is the core gray matter of Inside Out’s premise. In true Pixar style, the end credit outtakes were quite amusing, but simultaneously sad in that it reinforced my thoughts on the type of witty comedic interludes missing from the actual film itself. The rest of the flick’s attempts at comedy fall flatter than Mel Gibson’s acting career. Nevertheless, despite the few aforementioned flashes, this was far from Pixar’s best effort with regards to delivering laughs, even if they were supposed to be limited in the first place. On a related note, I happened to hear a radio personality discuss how she took a group of 6 year-old boys to the Inside Out opening weekend and all of them unanimously explained how unfunny and boring the film was to them. If this reveals anything about the Outlaw, it’s that apparently I reside in the 6 year-old demographic when it comes to Pixar movies.
2) Mind over Casting
Keeping with the theme of comedic deficiency, I will attempt to explain why I didn’t seem to find the funny in this flick like I would have hoped (provided I’m in the minority, where I find myself more often than not). In accordance with the rules of my own honesty island (an Inside Out reference for those whom have seen the flick), I had a rather unfavorable view of the cast before even setting foot in the theater. To be quite blunt: I’ve never really found Amy Poehler all that amusing; to me Lewis Black is an overly obnoxious Bobcat Goldthwait on steroids; and I find Mindy Kaling about as funny as getting a non-sedated appendectomy while simultaneously attending a funeral service for the Pope (and I wouldn’t be shocked if I could find more humor in that too). I have no ill will towards Phyllis Smith, but her character is a power plant of depression from beginning to end and comes across as more annoying than cute. That leaves Bill Hader, the one actor of the group I actually do find quite funny. Despite being cast for the role appropriately, even his attempts at comedy fell on deaf ears in our theater with the exception of the one scene which I earlier alluded to chuckling at outright.
3) Writing it Off
Clearly, all of the above comments are completely biased and subjective based on my personal comedic tastes. (And if you knew what I find funny, you’d recognize I probably fall far from what the mainstream consumers of entertainment view as humorous these days.) Believe it or not, despite my thinly veiled disdain for the actors above, I don’t think the absence of comedy had as much to do with them as it did the writing, which I also hinted at above. Nevertheless, be it the writing or the actors, I didn’t connect with or particularly care for any of the characters living in Riley’s head. Maybe it was because they each represented exaggerated emotions, but they all came across as incredibly irritating and I found none of them likeable or charming in any way… not even Joy.
4) Emotions that Hang in the Balance
Another aspect of Inside Out I didn’t particularly care for revolved around the movie spending more time ‘inside’ than ‘out.’ What do I mean by that? Well, I’m glad you asked. Granted, I didn’t keep track using dual stopwatches during my tenure in the theater; however, the entire film seemed to spend noticeably more time with the emotional characters in Riley’s head than with Riley in the real world. It’s a shame, too, since I felt – and this is going to sound odd – I was connecting more with Riley and the events in her world versus the emotional characters and events taking place in her mind. What is the right balance you ask? This is another great question for which I cannot provide a proper answer. All I know is: the best heartfelt moments should have been with Riley and not attempted with some goofy overemotional characters running amok in her head. That said, I also don’t think the concept of having characters in one’s head was the issue either. Hell, I personally think the idea is comedy gold and strangely enough, I felt the whole model played out better when it was briefly used in shorter segments to represent the minds of other people within Riley’s “outer” world.
Taking all of the above into consideration, I couldn’t help but walk away from Inside Out feeling disappointed, and dare I say, even a tad depressed. To be fair, I noted earlier that some of the write-ups point out this film is supposed to be a little bluer and not as thematically light-hearted as past Pixar films. In addition, the subject matter alone is heavier in its own right, so that is understandable as well. Hey, if Pixar wants to mix things up by tackling more grown-up subject matter, I’m all for it. Conversely though, I also expect more from them in the humor division. Indeed, Pixar set their own bar and it would be my hope they try to maintain it – unless they really decide to switch gears.
In the end, the word of the review for the Outlaw is balance, and Inside Out just didn’t strike the proper balance of emotions with me this go-around. Mind you, my required balance of emotions may not always be considered a great measuring stick. Appropriately, this is probably about the time that all three of my former readers ask me “what the hell are you thinking?” I’ll go ahead and just answer that for everyone now with my typical response: “You don’t want to know what’s going on in my head. Trust me… it’s for the best.”