'Inside Out' and 'When Marnie Was There' find humor and drama in girlish emotions

Two new animated films value female minds over the usual matters

Tuesday June 23, 2015 04:00 am EDT

At a time of debate about the underrepresentation of female characters in mainstream genre movies, it seems like a watershed moment that two animated films are not only about adolescent girls — they're explicitly about the feelings of adolescent girls.

Both have the most prestigious possible pedigrees. The computer-rendered Inside Out marks something of a comeback for Pixar Animation Studios following a minor creative slump since the highs of Up and Toy Story 3. The traditionally animated When Marnie Was There is the latest — and possibly last — feature from Japan's Studio Ghibli. For decades Studio Ghibli has specialized in female-focused films such as Spirited Away, and Pixar has been critiqued for its male-oriented stories, but of the two, Inside Out emerges with more insight.

For Inside Out, Up director Pete Docter presents the inner life of 11-year-old Riley Anderson (Kaitlyn Dias), a confident young hockey player from the Midwest. The film envisions five anthropomorphized emotions who dictate Riley's responses to the world from an elaborate control room. Joy dominates the others, with Amy Poehler giving the role the same kind of can-do effervescence she brought to "Parks and Recreation." Competing for the controls are Fear (Bill Hader), Disgust (Mindy Kaling), Anger (scene-stealer Lewis Black), and mopey, passive Sadness (Phyllis Smith), whom Joy finds utterly useless.

Riley loses her usual bearings when her family moves to San Francisco and she struggles to adjust. These dislocations result in Joy and Sadness being stranded outside the control room in the vastness of the mind's organizational system. With the other emotions in charge, Riley experiences a downward spiral of fear, anger, disgust, and self-consciousness. Joy and Sadness become mismatched buddies on a mission to get back to the controls before Riley makes an irreversible mistake.

Featuring endless rows of "memory banks" and toy-like workers in hard hats, Riley's mind proves comparable to the titular factory of Docter's Monsters Inc. Riley's half-forgotten imaginary friend Bing Bong (Richard Kind) becomes Joy and Sadness's eager-to-please traveling companion. Inside Out features cute set pieces involving such locales as a movie studio that produces Riley's dreams, but the actual plot mechanics that propel Joy and company from scene to scene can feel arbitrary and at times frivolous.

But Inside Out's strength lies in its fascinating, expansive metaphor for cognition: how core memories can shape personality; emotions can shape memory; significant aspects of a child's personality become cast aside when growing up. The film's vision of the coming-of-age process and the purpose of sorrow can be so affecting that by the end, audiences should expect joy and sadness to be tag-teaming their own personal controls. (4 out of 5 stars)

When Marnie Was There follows another girl of nearly the same age on a physical and emotional journey. The introduction signals how Anna (voiced by Hailee Steinfeld in the English language dub) sees her place in the world: Alongside a crowded, sunny playground, the budding artist draws pictures from the shadows. In voice-over, Anna admits that she hates herself, and has reasons to be downcast, as she suffers from asthma attacks and is raised by a guardian following her parents' death.

Anna is less than enthused about being shipped off with relatives for fresh air at a coastal community. She tends to wallow in self-loathing and push others away, but grows fascinated with an abandoned mansion at the edge of a marsh. Half-glimpsing a well-dressed girl waving from a window, Anna envisions the two of them becoming friends. Even though privileged, the spontaneous Marnie seems diametrically opposite of our protagonist.

Is Marnie just a figure from Anna's dreams? Are she and her family members actual ghosts? With empty mansions, rain-swept silos, and clues found in old diaries, When Marnie Was There has elements of a gothic novel, even though the landscapes are green and lush. Between Marnie's spirited example and the unraveling of long-kept secrets, Anna begins to come out of her shell.

Studio Ghibli recently announced a hiatus of producing new films, giving Marnie added poignancy as possibly a valedictory work. Director Hiromasa Yonebayashi helms a deliberately paced story with an intriguing payoff that nevertheless doesn't quite seize the imagination like Studio Ghibli's finest efforts. At times, Anna's facial animation seems deliberately inexpressive, perhaps to convey the idea that no expression at all conveys depression as much as tears and frowns.

As film subjects, dragons and supervillians are more flashy and common as antagonists, but depression is more universal. In real life, people are more likely to wrestle with figurative demons than literal ones. And not just girls. (3 out of 5 stars)

More By This Writer

Short Subjectives April 15 2009 Article

Wednesday April 15, 2009 04:00 am EDT

Hollywood Product March 22 2006 Article

Thursday October 14, 2004 12:04 am EDT

Movie Review - Horror throwback The House of the Devil thrills and chills Article

Is Jocelin Donahue this generation's Jamie Lee Curtis?
Monday February 15, 2010 04:00 am EST

Movie Review - Thick as thieves - The Score Article

Film legends fritter away talent on The Score
Wednesday July 18, 2001 12:04 am EDT

Movie Review - Twist of fate Article

Monster's Ball takes a wrenching look at race relations
Wednesday February 6, 2002 12:04 am EST
Search for more by Curt Holman