Ordinarily, I’m just about the worst person to ask about a Disney Pixar animation. While I try to remain open to any and all modes, methods and genres of filmmaking, CG animation seems to find me hitting in a wall. I repeatedly find it very difficult to connect with. I drummed my fingers through Monsters Inc (’til I switched it off, that is), remained steadfastly dry-eyed during the opening of Up (I know, I’m heartless, right?) and found the Toy Stories and WALL-E… *sigh* acceptable? Y’know… just… fine. But never much more. And Pixar’s output tends to be the best of the bunch. Some of the other key studios fall much further from the mark. The only movie I’ve ever walked out of at the cinema, for instance, is Madagascar. And can we all just agree now that there’s nothing cute or fun or acceptable about Minions. They’re taking over the world, people.
Now, with that cascade of risible nonsense out of my system, you might better appreciate what I’m about to say about Inside Out…
It’s a highlight of the year.
Imaginatively crafted, tempering American animation’s general and frankly irritating reliance on ‘funny’ sassiness with a hitherto untapped greater level of depth, Inside Out dances gracefully along a high-wire with barely a wobble to speak of. Where previously I’ve found the ingredients in these movies at odds (too sweet, too sharp etc), here everything is more or less just right. Welcome, then, to my long-required change of heart. Pixar, you can have a fist-bump for this one.
Having developed a formula (what if ______ had emotions?) and having ran with it for a clutch of films and sequels, perhaps it was inevitable that Pixar’s template would eventually devour itself. Inside Out proposes “what if emotions had emotions?” and thus we meet Riley (Kaitlyn Dias), an eleven year old girl. But wait. More significantly we meet Joy (Amy Poehler), the dominant emotion within Riley’s head, exuberantly overseeing a control room where she is nominally challenged by Fear (Bill Hader), Disgust (Mindy Kaling) and Anger (Lewis Black). However, a house move and the troubled first day at a new school have offset the balance within Riley. Joy grows concerned that the negative emotions around her are exerting more of an influence. Joy’s primary concern is Sadness (Phyllis Smith), who has the unnerving tendency to taint bygone memories forever, affecting not just the present but the past as well.
Memories are visualised here as warmly glowing orbs, but when Sadness touches a ‘core memory’ it turns blue, reflecting the effect of introspective nostalgia. Joy finds this immeasurably disturbing, try as she might to shake it off. However, when Sadness goes too far and the two end up in a tussle, the two emotions inadvertently find themselves exiled to the outer regions of Riley’s mindscape, a place pocked with theme parks dedicated to key emotional focal points and surrounded by a number of other creatively realised landmarks. Dreams and nightmares, for instance, are created in a film studio of their own, while one of Inside Out‘s more hilarious sequences occurs within Riley’s imagination where the film’s creators Pete Docter and Ronaldo del Carmen get to tinker with the very form of their output. As Riley grows more volatile with only Fear, Anger and Disgust to guide her, Joy and Sadness must get back to the control room (via the Train Of Thought – genius) in order to restore balance.
There is a lot to applaud here. Docter and del Carmen’s film manages, with almost inexplicable ease, to condense complex emotional themes into an easily digestible metaphorical package, making difficult topics easy for children to understand or appreciate. Inside Out runs headlong into talking about the consequences and reasons behind early-onset depression, yet wraps this conversation up in the dressing of an adventure story. Most importantly, as things progress, Joy comes to understand that Sadness isn’t just a one-note vessel for blame, but a complex and important emotion, one necessary and integral to the balanced makeup of Riley as a whole person. There’s a wonderful lesson here about self-acceptance which raises the bar for the genre in many ways, and is done so without seeming overbearing.
True, the core of what Docter and del Carmen are trying to get to here couldn’t be more blatant – its literally being visualised throughout the film – yet it is done so with the lightest of touches. Inside Out moves along with a buoyancy perpetuated by its own inventiveness, with clear lines drawn between the external and internal worlds that Riley exists in. The interior world inhabited by Joy and co is as bright and multicoloured as an explosion in a Skittles factory, while the outside world becomes increasingly dreary and monochrome as Riley loses her equilibrium. Inside Out therefore offers its viewers a comparatively harsh reality, one that all children on the cusp of puberty will be able to associate with. Yet importantly it also gives them a wonderful internal landscape in which to develop emotional intelligence. At it’s best Inside Out feels like a gift to the young, encouraging viewers of Riley’s age to become aware of their own responses.
And on top of that, it’s a hoot. Richard Kind turns up partway through to voice Bing Bong; an imaginary friend of Riley’s who helps Joy and Sadness in their journey home. He’s the most saccharin, childlike element in the movie, sure, but he’s also part of the tonic that stops Inside Out from becoming too introverted. Similarly, Fear, Anger and Disgust are employed mainly for comic relief, while little windows into the minds of some of the supporting humans reveal equally humorous internal snapshots. And not for nothing, it’s good to see Pixar’s increasing confidence in female leads (it took them a while to get to Brave). Joy and Sadness are both presented as feminine, and there’s Riley too of course. Yet overruling gender is how universal all of this is anyway (you could franchise this into infinity). Still, it feels as though Pixar’s creative team are taking a leaf out of Studio Ghibli’s playbook here (their main competitors in terms of universal quality).
Inside Out will please children for its colours, it’s adventure and, yes, it’s message, and parents will no doubt react with strong pangs of empathy for Riley’s plight, recalling their own adolescence while thinking of their own kids. In that sense this is absolutely a family movie, one of the very best of recent times, and something everyone involved should feel proud of. There are still a couple of moments that teeter a little too close to cloying, and while the work here is as detailed as anything I’ve yet seen, CG animation still leaves me a little cold. But my usual niggles have been totally quelled by the sheer positive force of the remainder. And there’s still a lot to unpack about this film and the things it’s so bravely putting on the table; how much we are governed by our emotions, the complexities within just one etc etc. Maybe I’ll get into some of these further exploratory nuggets when writing up the (surely?) inevitable sequel.
That’s something I’m absolutely on board for.