Pete Docter turns expectations upside-down with ‘Inside Out’ for Pixar

19 May 2015 | Author: | No comments yet »

Cannes Film Review: ‘Inside Out’.

Inside the mind of Pete Docter, things didn’t look pretty. Pixar chief John Lasseter, left, and director Pete Docter say ‘Inside Out,’ which premiered at the Cannes Film Festival, explores universal themes.(Photo: Lionel Cironneau, AP) CANNES, France — Before Pixar’s Inside Out was officially unveiled Monday at Cannes Film Festival, director Pete Docter felt confident that the world could be moved by a story taking place inside an 11-year-old American girl’s mind. “Regardless of where you grow up in the world, we’re all human,” Docter told USA TODAY. “These emotions are pretty universal.On paper, “Inside Out” sounded like another lunatic gamble: an adventure that takes place entirely within the head of an 11-year-old girl, featuring her Emotions as characters — although if anyone could pull off a logline like that, it would be the team that made us care about rats who cook, toys that bond, and robots who fall in love.Pete Docter’s new animation Inside Out does not deliver that shock of the new which was so stunning in the Pixar heyday of the last decade — all the dazzling technical spectacle of detail, colour and light which had us gobsmacked, and which we now take utterly for granted. Ahead of an important screening for his bosses at Pixar Animation about two years ago, the director was wrestling with a thorny story problem on his next film, “Inside Out.” “This one moment is funny, but I don’t know what the movie as a whole is saying,” Docter recalled thinking to himself as he walked the hills near his home in Piedmont, Calif. “How did things get so far and we still don’t have anything?

Hopefully, no matter where you are or what your culture, you can see yourself in this.” The movie’s Cannes screening was greeted with universal applause. Sure enough, in execution, Pixar’s 15th feature proves to be the greatest idea the toon studio has ever had: a stunningly original concept that will not only delight and entertain the company’s massive worldwide audience, but also promises to forever change the way people think about the way people think, delivering creative fireworks grounded by a wonderfully relatable family story. The film delves into the imagination — literally — by portraying human emotions of Joy, Anger, Disgust and Sadness as distinct characters, who sit at the control panel in the mind “Headquarters” of a young girl, Riley.

But its star Amy Poehler doesn’t think that should stand in its way. “It’s not up for the Palme d’Or, but it could still win, right?” she asked with a grin after the first festival screening of the film. Inside Out, showing out of competition at Cannes and directed by Pete Docter and Ronaldo Del Carmen, can easily take a place alongside its greatest films.

It hasn’t anything as genuinely emotionally devastating as Up, or the subtlety and inspired subversion of Monsters Inc. and the Toy Stories which it certainly resembles at various stages. I’m gonna get fired.” It is likelier that Pixar would fire Luxo Jr., its desk lamp mascot, than Docter, a beloved figure at the studio who is known for bringing emotional depth and a childlike wonder to his films. Docter’s last feature, the Oscar-winning 2009 adventure tale “Up,” contained both a moving, wordless montage about infertility and death and a talking, squirrel-obsessed golden retriever named Dug. Objectively speaking, several of the studio’s previous films work better in terms of character appeal or narrative accomplishment (though when it comes to cartoons, playing favorites is inevitably a subjective game).

The other feelings in her head are Sadness (Phyllis Smith), Fear (Bill Hader), Anger (Lewis Black) and Disgust (Mindy Kaling). “We wanted to create a movie about something that everyone in the audience knows about but had never seen before,” executive producer John Lasseter said of the film’s unusual concept. I particularly found its famously tear-jerking sequence, in which we see the life of an old man and his eventually deceased wife compressed into a few minutes, particularly egregious.

He also took pains to explain the Pixar method of storytelling, in which the filmmakers watch their work in storyboard form every 12 weeks during pre-production, tear it down and begin again. “It’s almost like we get to have nine or 10 cuts of our film even before we start production.” The voice talents also enjoyed the freedom of helping to create their characters, whose lines were recorded before any serious animation began. “I’m not asked to do that many things,” said Kaling, best known as the creator and star of TV’s The Mindy Project. “But they showed me the story, and I started weeping. Pixar, founded by George Lucas and financed by late Apple boss Steve Jobs, made a big opening splash with “Toy Story” and went from strength to strength with “Monsters, Inc.”, “Finding Nemo” and “The Incredibles”. They weren’t too scared off by that and let me continue working with them.” “I basically just do one character,” said Poehler, whose role on TV’s Parks and Recreation is similarly perky. “But it’s nice to go to work and your job is to tell everyone that everything’s going great.” Still, she remembered a day when co-director Pete Docter said that they were going to be crying all day. “I said ‘Yes!’ ” she recalled, pumping her fist and looking at the filmmakers: “And then I gave you guys $350.” Docter actually trotted out the hoary phrase that Inside Out is a film the whole family can enjoy, but it’s a point well made.

Of course it’s sad to watch a sweet old man lose his sweet old wife; never mind that we’re barely 10 minutes into the film and know nothing about either character. Riley (voiced by Kaitlin Dyas) is an eleven-year-old girl who has had to leave behind all her friends in Minnesota when her parents move to San Francisco where her dad is precariously setting up as an entrepreneur. The story line asks audiences to accomplish the psychologically sophisticated task of watching our own minds — a reviewer at Cannes called “Inside Out” “one the most conceptually trippy films ever made as a PG-rated popcorn picture.” If critics felt Pixar has been playing it safe with its recent spate of kid-friendly sequels, they’re not likely to feel that way now. Sitting alongside them were the French counterparts who voiced the emotions for French-speaking audiences: Charlotte Le Bon (Joy), Marilou Berry (Sadness), Gilles Lellouche (Anger) and Pierre Niney (Fear). Inside Out may be the first so-called kids’ film to use the phrase “non-objective fragmentation,” in a scene in which parts of Riley’s personality wander into the “abstract thought” region of her brain.

It’s the emotional equivalent of a jump scare in a horror movie, or pinching someone to make them go “ouch.” People just naturally react to some things; that doesn’t mean they’re smart or thoughtful or profound. But the move is making her depressed in ways that her parents have not fully appreciated — we appreciate it, because we are taken inside the mission control headquarters of Riley’s mind, perhaps a very U-certificate version of a similar idea in Woody Allen’s sketch for Everything You Always Wanted To Know About Sex. In an interview at Pixar last month, in a room with a cardboard standee of Walt Disney in the corner and white boards filled with dizzying lists of production targets behind their heads, Docter and his longtime producer, Jonas Rivera, explained how “Inside Out” took shape. For the first 11 years of Riley’s life, her Emotions have stood crowded around an instruments panel of what looks like an air-traffic control tower inside her head. With Inside Out, Docter — again teamed with Up co-writer Michael Arndt — has switched his focus from the regrets of old age to the sorrows of lost youth, and once again he can’t help but push those sentimentality buttons at every turn.

Lanky, wide-eyed and sincere, Docter, 46, carries himself more like a kid with particularly good manners than a grown-up — this temperament works well at Pixar, a spiritually youthful company that was celebrating Wear Your Pajamas to Work Day and hosting a chocolate festival. “She would be at home and be tap dancing and doing all that goofy stuff, and we first heard of it through her teacher, who’d say, ‘Elie’s a quiet child,’ ” Docter said. “We’d say, ‘Really?’ She suddenly became aware of judgment and where do I fit in and where is my social circle. Amusingly swift glimpses into the minds of other characters suggest everyone is wired more or less the same way, while still allowing for wild variation in the efficiency of the five Emotions they’ve been dealt. But in recent years, it has been in danger of being overshadowed by Disney Animation Studios, which made the top-grossing animation of all time, “Frozen”.

They are in charge of creating glowing little memory balls which are stored in the control suite for the day and then, when Riley goes to sleep, despatched to be warehoused off-site with all the other long-term memories. Cannes, therefore, is a prestigious fillip for Pixar, and market watchers are seeing if “Inside Out” can succeed in maintaining its profile against the competition it faces — inside and out. “Disney, you know, when they bought Pixar, they were like, ‘OK we paid a lot of money for these guys, we don’t want to break anything.’ And so far, it (the studio) really has remained autonomous.” In fact, she’s frequently referred to as “our happy girl” by the latter, to the pride of Joy (Amy Poehler), who is the unofficial captain of the U.S.S. This infinite memory-ball library is situated in a huge, Daliesque alien-planet landscape which includes vast identity islands symbolising various aspects of her personality: honesty, love of family etc.

Her emotions, led by Joy, a yellow sprite voiced by an exuberant and occasionally manic Amy Poehler, live in relative harmony, steering her together through childhood’s ups and downs like the crew of the Starship Enterprise. That all came out of research.” Still, you don’t need to be a psychologist or a neurologist to experience the film’s highs and lows. “Comedy and drama,” said Poehler, “they live so close together.

It all runs perfectly until Riley spirals into unhappiness: Joy and Sadness somehow become locked out of the command centre, leaving Riley in a disastrous state of emotional illiteracy and confusion. It’s about that time that Joy’s control of her charge starts to slip, and Sadness (voiced by The Office’s Phyllis Smith, who has many of the film’s best moments) begins to go a little rogue in central command, tampering with Riley’s “core memories” — her first hockey score, goofing around with her parents as a child — and turning them from happy memories to melancholy ones.

And for two men to think that was important, that was very moving to me.” As for the film’s automatic inability to win Cannes’ most prestigious prize, the Palme d’Or, Poehler suggested a far-fetched alternative to any festival judges listening: a write-in campaign. It’s full of amusing nooks and crannies, like Imagination Land and the more sinister Subconscious, which this fantastic voyage takes time to visit along the way, giving composer Michael Giacchino the chance to augment his heartening score with separate mood-appropriate themes for each of these realms. In the film, “Abstract Thought” looks like a Picasso painting, “Imaginationland” like a Disney theme park and the “Train of Thought” is an actual train that chugs along until Riley falls asleep, when Dream Productions, a movie studio of sorts, takes over. “Our reaction was, this is a great idea,” Pixar President Jim Morris said. “But, boy, it’s gonna be really hard. And the conceit — that as we age and life throws more complications at us, our remembrance of things past becomes more emotionally complicated — is simple and profound and inventively conveyed. Docter and Del Carmen make it a point to poke around here, and though the film absolutely could have been denser, they’ve opted for just the right balance of context and story, lest spending too much time with the Emotions deprive auds of experiencing the actual emotions that come from connecting with Riley and her family.

Well, of course you just have to go with it, as it all part of the general lesson that Sadness is actually important: the primacy of Joy at the controls could be a problem. And here’s where Inside Out starts to veer into even more wobbly and often literally abstract territory — which will please fans of Up’s weirder flights of fancy and lose others. But something’s off: Blame it on the cross-country move or the approach of puberty, but the Emotions don’t seem to work as they always have before.

That was weird. ‘Cause I’m not a natural alpha male leader type.” “Pete doesn’t pound the table,” Rivera said. “People crave truth and believability in this business, even when we’re making fake things. Without spoiling much, I will merely say that Bing Bong is the logical successor to Toy Story’s forgotten, unloved toys, and is clearly put there only to put our own personal Sadnesses into a chokehold. Joy — who superficially resembles Disney’s favorite fairy, Tinkerbell, minus the wings — means well, but she’s a bit of a control freak, and in trying to protect Riley’s “core memories,” she accidentally ejects herself and Sadness from Headquarters.

It’s a long way back, as the brain terrain crumbles around them, and in the interim, Riley’s mental state begins to unravel with Fear, Anger and Disgust left in control, unwisely deciding that the best idea is for Riley to run away. Life is full of enough sadness; now we’re supposed to feel guilty about the inanimate and imaginary objects of our childhood? is clearly made from the perspective of a parent, and I can’t hold that against it — Riley’s emotions, especially Joy, are like secondary parents, watching her and rooting for her and playing back her memories with unconditional affection. Pete comes to them with the ‘why’ they’re doing it.” But on “Inside Out,” the “why” didn’t come to Docter until relatively late in the production — to be precise, that day when he thought he’d be fired.

But I wonder how this film will play for actual children, aka its primary audience, and how much Docter’s wildly abstract, candy-colored visual design will delight vs. confound them. That’s when Docter had the creative epiphany that Sadness, a character he had undervalued, was, in fact, the key to the story. “In modern day U.S., we associate sadness with negativity,” Docter said. “We try to avoid it, we even self-medicate. Much of it, I suppose, will look familiar — I still remember imagining jelly bean-like workers living in my stomach when I was very young, which were present in almost unsettling verisimilitude in Riley’s long-term memory. And there are enough clever references to very concrete, real-world experiences (a jingle for a gum commercial that keeps being summoned for no particular reason, the maintenance workers who unsentimentally clear out unused memories like piano lessons and phone numbers) to keep it from flying off the rails.

In addition to linking the project to a period when advances in color film processes and stereoscopic 3D sparked wild visual experimentation in cinema, “Inside Out’s” retro look fits well with Pixar’s cutting-edge technology, blending vintage style choices with lighting and texture options previously unavailable to animators. I hope its real, quite sophisticated lesson — that it’s okay to feel things other than happiness sometimes, and that all our emotions help us grow up — comes through all the bouncing marbles and glitter showers and rainbow pony princesses. Even something as seemingly basic as the Emotions’ skin texture — more of a pulsing mass of glowing electron-like particles, really — reflects unexpected solutions to infinite questions Docter’s gonzo idea must have raised. In other cases, it’s the streamlining of ideas that serves the material so well: from the vivid colors to the way the story always comes back to parent-child relations, playing equally well to both demographics.

That was kind of scary, I’m standing in front of you waving my arms instead of showing you all the homework with the hope that you understand why we’re doing this.” The next hurdle was screening for kids. Docter, who also has an 18-year-old son, said he let go of an early worry about children understanding the film when kids at test screenings were explaining the premise to their parents. “Kids get it quicker than adults do,” Docter said. “That’s really the first language kids learn. Smith’s Eeyore-like Sadness serves as the perfect foil to Poehler’s ebullient Joy, while Anger’s surprisingly cute appearance and diminutive stature make Black’s scenery-chewing performance that much funnier.

To borrow a notion from Malcolm Gladwell, the pic’s “stickiness factor” is through the roof, making it one of those rare movies that transcends the medium, the way Melies visualized a moon landing or Romero invented zombies, even if relatively few go back to watch the films that spawned those ideas today. Concepts like this come around maybe once a decade, but linger for centuries, and even if others (like early-’90s TV show “Herman’s Head”) got there first, you’ve gotta hand it to Pixar for making it endure. There’s a reason they call Pixar’s inner team the “Brain Trust”: They can be counted on not only to imagine, but to execute such original ideas as these. (Animated) A Walt Disney Studios Motion Pictures release of a Disney presentation of a Pixar Animation Studios production. Camera (color, 3D), Patrick Lin; editor, Kevin Nolting; music, Michael Giacchino; music supervisor, Tom MacDougall; production designer, Ralph Eggleston; sound designer (Dolby Atmos, Datasat), Ren Klyce; supervising sound editor, Shannon Mills; re-recording mixers, Michael Semanick, Tom Johnson; supervising technical director, Michael Fong; supervising animators, Shawn Krause, Victor Navone; character supervisor, Sajan Skaria; effects supervisor, Gary Bruins; stereoscopic supervisor, Bob Whitehill; associate producer, Mark Nielsen; casting, Kevin Reher, Natalie Lyon.

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