Why The Best Mainstream Movie of 2015 So Far Is A Kid's Flick

12:38 PM Amanda Prahl 0 Comments

It's the midpoint of the year, and that always means film critics around the country compile their best-of lists for the first half of the year. These lists never really measure up by the time December rolls around, thanks in large part to the well-known strategy of backloading the year with prestige pictures in hopes of increasing awards-season chances. 2015 has, however, already had its fair share of blockbusters, from Cinderella to an Avengers sequel to the reboot Jurassic World. But among mainstream movies, one movie has risen above the rest- and it's "just" an animated family-friendly movie: Pixar's Inside Out. How did a film marketed to kids turn out to be the most thoughtful, poignant movie for grown-ups as well?

2015 hasn't exactly been a top-notch year for movies so far
Few films can stand alone without reference to their contemporaries, and this is where Inside Out gains even more. Most of the biggest successes of the year so far have been entertaining and glossy but not particularly unique or thoughtful. Jurassic World has made a ridiculous amount of money at the box office, but its success rests heavily on affection for the brand and on the shoulders of Chris Pratt. Let's be honest: Owen Grady is pretty much a watered-down version of Peter Quill. Along with him, you've got the uptight corporate woman who learns to be softer, a couple of cute kids in danger, and massive special effects- just like always. The end.

The Avengers: Age of Ultron does its best to keep up Marvel's streak of excellence, but even Joss Whedon's gift for ensemble work and quippy dialogue inevitably collapses under the too-much-ness of a sequel overstuffed with characters and battle sequences. The end result is a film that, while still having some excellent scenes, struggles to overcome the weight of the ever-expanding Marvel universe. Summer is generally looked upon as the season where popcorn megahits don't ask much of their audiences or derivate from stock formulas, but a handful of recent movies (even Marvel's own Guardians of the Galaxy) have successfully started a trend reversal. This year, unfortunately, only the no-one-saw-this-coming Mad Max reboot has started conversations about anything except explosions and Easter eggs.

Inside Out, on the other hand, is that rare thing: a completely original film without a focus on big-name headliners. It's easy to argue that both these things are easier in animation, but that only holds true to a certain extent. Animated films still seek out all-star celebrity casts to voice their characters, just like live-action films seek out box-office "sure bets" to anchor their would-be blockbusters. And perhaps there are more original animated films, but the past several years have seen Despicable Me, Cars, Madagascar, and Puss in Boots, among others, have been the animated equivalents of those live-action franchises that just won't go away. The subset of original ideas that are truly original and executed with care and quality is sadly small- but for this year, Inside Out is leading the pack as a true crowd-pleaser that actually has something to say.

It tackles real, complex issues in a sophisticated style
There's one very simple explanation for everything: Inside Out is a beautifully crafted film, period. The animation itself is gorgeous, creating a stunning, varied, and colorful landscape that is somehow exactly how you imagine the inside of one's mind would look, even though you've probably never actually thought about it before.

It's not just Pixar's trademark high-quality animation that makes this a standout movie, however. This is genuinely a movie for both children and adults. The key lies in how the material is apportioned: the plot, at least on the surface, is fairly simple adventure fare; likewise the supporting "emotions." When it comes to the two leading ladies- Sadness and Joy- and the deeper thematic content, however, this is a film that truly speaks to those in the audience who are no longer children. Sadness, for instance, starts out as the easy scapegoat; of course no one wants to be sad! But as the film progresses, there is a sophistication realization that sadness is necessary as part of an emotional balance. There is a poignant nostalgia that runs through the film, from the solid-color simplicity of the earlier memory "globes" to the tearjerking arc as Bing Bong resigns himself to being forgotten. Seriously, find me another movie that takes a potentially irritating, chipper sidekick and instead makes it a poignant symbol of lost childhood (and makes you cry for a cat-elephant-dolphin hybrid). Even the end credits get in on it:

Image from touchthesky_wdw on Instagram

As adults watching this movie, whether we have only just left childhood behind or have not been children for many decades, we feel the bittersweetness of this story very deeply. There is a certain degree of longing for the days when emotions were simpler and more straightforward, and the simultaneous loss and discovery of, well, growing up. Few films have ever managed to really convey this complexity, and Inside Out succeeds because it does it so well.

And yet, it's refreshingly optimistic

When most movies try to deal with issues like these, however, they tend to be either A) incredibly depressing and "artsy", B) sickeningly sweet and simplistic, or C) a John Hughes movie. So much of fiction, be it on the big screen, the small screen, the page, or the stage, tends to conflate complexity or quality with unhappy or downer. Happy endings are seen as overly sentimental, as the stuff of Hallmark movies and old-fashioned fairy tales- that is to say, utterly unrealistic. So often, these "quality" stories ask questions like, "How do I live like _____" or "How can I do ____", and the answer is, "You don't." But Inside Out, like the best of tales, answers "How do I live with ___" with "You live." And that, more than anything else, is what makes this movie so excellent.