It’s no surprise that Disney / Pixar’s Inside Out has been released to near-universal critical acclaim. This is a smart, funny, captivating and beautifully-rendered computer animated film that reaches the bar previously set by hits such as the Toy Story trilogy, Up, Monsters, Inc, The Incredibles and WALL-E, all of which were produced by the studio. We can assume the presence here of Pete Docter, the man who has either co-written or directed all of the above with the exception of The Incredibles, is key; Docter’s name has become synonymous with quality, and along with John Lasseter and Andrew Stanton he has been instrumental in keeping Pixar at the front of the pack during the past two decades. This may well be his best work to date.
The premise – we get to see inside the mind of an 11-year-old girl named Riley (voiced by Kaitlyn Dias), where five different personified emotions are hard at work keeping her on an even keel – is simple enough for very young kids to grasp. Those five emotions are Joy (Amy Poehler), Sadness (Phyllis Smith), Fear (Bill Hader), Anger (Lewis Black) and Disgust (Mindy Kaling), and it’s their job to ‘pilot’ Riley from her mental headquarters (in the literal sense of the word). In this room various memories can be replayed – represented as bowling balls that are coded using the relevant colour of the corresponding emotion – and dozens of new ones arrive each day, to be stored away in banks that resemble the surface of the brain when seen from above, or occasionally to be turned into ‘core memories’ that inform Riley’s personality. Initially it brings to mind the old comic strip The Numskulls, in which a team of miniature workmen operate a human being while sitting in various different departments (brain, ear, nose etc.), usually with less-than-satisfactory results. But Docter and co-writers Meg LeFauve and Josh Cooley have more than a page of panels to work with, and gradually reveal a cerebral landscape that marries sophistication and ideas with fun and the potential for adventure, breaking the mind down into several connected areas as if it were a theme park (there’s Imagination Land, which is next to Personality Islands, both sitting above The Abyss Of The Subconscious, etc.)
At the beginning of the film Riley is a well-adjusted and happy child, but a move from Minneapolis to San Francisco unsettles her and initiates a spell of chaos that ends with Joy and Sadness marooned outside of their control tower, while Disgust, Anger and Fear are left in charge. As a result externally we see Riley struggle to adapt to her new surroundings, break down in school and gradually fall out with her parents (voiced by Kyle MacLachlan and Diane Lane), who are preoccupied with business matters and missing furniture. Internally Joy and Sadness end up on an odyssey of sorts, joined by Bing Bong (Richard Kind), an elephantine imaginary friend from Riley’s toddler years. Their quest to get back includes plenty of action but it’s the ideas at play that are more likely to delight older viewers, and probably many young ones too, from the brief detour through the realm of Abstract Thought (which smartly doubles as a quick overview of abstract art) to the arch sequence revolving around Dream Productions (a pastiche of Hollywood studio sets that allows the writers to make several sharp in-jokes). Meanwhile Joy realises that she should no longer exert dominance over her four co-worker emotions if the desired effect is for Riley to act ‘normally’. The key message of Inside Out is that sadness in particular is natural and shouldn’t be repressed; it’s a difficult balance to get right, though, as the film suggests.
For me and many others alike one of the most impressive aspects of Pixar’s productions to date has been the way that they successfully and consistently appeal to children and adults of all ages. Inside Out is no different: there’s plenty of child-friendly silliness, some simple visual gags and, when we’re inside Riley’s mind, an assortment of bright colours on the screen (contrasting with the muted exterior, where the new family home and city surroundings have a slight pea-green washed-out look); yet older children and adults will be just as entertained by the knowing jokes, non-sequiturs and acerbic asides. The film wittily mocks hipsterdom and the dourness of the healthy eating brigade by way of a takeaway pizza place while the random behaviour of various adults, cats and dogs is picked apart when Docter and co briefly show the inner workings of other minds; different sentient beings have similar teams of emotions at the helm as Riley, though each one is wittily altered in some way (those looking after Riley’s father, for example, all have corresponding moustaches and their room reflects his age, with older technology used). So, to sum up, it’s a film packed with gentle and inoffensive fun, with a winning attention to detail, but more impressive is the way that Docter and co subtly wage war once again on the suppression of emotions; this is carried out in a way that doesn’t come across as patronising to younger audiences (though really I’m not in a position to say this for certain) while also giving older viewers plenty of food for thought. Lovely film.
Directed by: Pete Docter.
Written by: Pete Docter, Meg LeFauve, Josh Cooley. Story by Pete Docter and Ronnie del Carmen
Starring: Amy Poehler, Phyllis Smith, Kaitlyn Dias, Bill Hader, Lewis Black, Mindy Kaling, Richard Kind, Diane Lane, Kyle MacLachlan.
Editing: Kevin Nolting.
Music: Michael Giacchino.
Running Time: 102 minutes (including short film Lava).