Directors: Pete Docter, Ronaldo Del Carmen
Starring: Amy Poehler, Phyllis Smith, Richard Kind, Bill Hader, Lewis Black, Mindy Kaling, Kaitlyn Dias, Diane Lane, Kyle MacLachlan
In the last twenty years, no Hollywood studio has been as consistently original and imaginative as Pixar. In an era when kid’s movies are so often dumbed down and seem guided primarily by merchandising departments, John Lasseter and his brains trust at Pixar allow themselves to be guided first and foremost by ideas. Their latest offering, Pete Docter (Up, Monsters Inc) and Ronaldo Del Carmen’s Inside Out, arguably represents the zenith of Pixar’s bold originality, taking us inside the mind of a young girl.
Inside Out tells a very small scale story. Eleven-year-old Riley (Kaitlyn Dias) lives a happy life with her parents (Diane Lane and Kyle MacLachlan) in Minnesota, only to have it unsettled when her father’s work requires the family has to relocate to San Francisco. With no friends, a different house and a new school, Riley starts to feel terribly homesick but doesn’t feel that she can talk about it with her parents. That is all that happens in the movie. At least, that is all that happens on the outside. For the key action in Inside Out actually takes place inside Riley’s mind. In the control room of her mind we meet anthropomorphised emotions, Joy (Amy Poehler), Sadness (Phyllis Smith), Fear (Bill Hader), Anger (Lewis Black) and Disgust (Mindy Kaling). They work together, manning to control panel to coordinate Riley’s responses to the world around her. It is here that Inside Out has similarities to Pixar’s flagship franchise, Toy Story, with both centred on key characters whose primary concern is the happiness and wellbeing of a child.
The most impressive aspect of co-directors Doctor and Del Carmen’s film is the way they are able to present sophisticated visual metaphors which simply and effectively explain the way memory, personality, subconscious and dreaming all work. In this regard, Inside Out is sure to become a key text for introductory psychology courses in future years. The control panel becomes more sophisticated as Riley ages and emotionally develops, starting out as a single button when she is born and, by the film’s end, being upgraded to a large panel of knobs, lights and levers. As Riley goes through her day, memories are captured in translucent orbs with colours that correspond to the relevant emotion. These orbs are stored on shelves in the control room until the end of the day when Riley goes to sleep and they are sucked away to Long Term Memory for storage. However, the most significant memories become core memories. Riley has five of these and each of them informs a part of her personality. From the window of the control room we can see Riley’s five Islands of Personality, looking like amusement parks dedicated to the key traits and interests that define her as a person – family, friendship, hockey, goofiness, and honesty. With such sophisticated inner workings, Docter and Del Carmen have done well to keep the external narrative quite simple to ensure younger viewers weren’t left with too much on their plate with an Inception-like multi-layered, interrelated narrative.
Our protagonist is not actually Riley, it is Joy, who has a notable visual similarity to Disney’s Tinker Bell. To this point in Riley’s life Joy has been running the show. She keeps Riley happy and the other emotions in their place. But recently the dynamic has started to change. In particular, Sadness has been trying to work out her place in things. She has developed a special ability that none of the other emotions have: she can change memories. A previously happy memory can become a sad one if she touches it, a development that is particularly troubling to Joy. Joy has never understood Sadness, she doesn’t know what her purpose is and devotes a lot of her energy to keeping Sadness away from the controls. But in her desire to protect Riley’s core memories from Sadness’s new ability, the two are accidentally ejected from the control room. So at this transitional moment in Riley’s life she is left with only Anger, Fear and Disgust at the controls. Without Joy in the control room it is impossible for Riley to be happy, so Inside Out becomes an odd-couple journey movie as Joy and Sadness must travel through Long Term Memory, the Subconscious, Abstract Thought and the Dream Factory to try and find their way back to headquarters.
At its heart, Inside Out is a coming of age story – both for Riley who is transitioning from childhood to adolescence, and for Joy who has to learn that it is ok for Riley to experience other emotions. It is a film which will affect young and old alike because Pixar don’t make children’s movies, they make family movies. That doesn’t just mean a kid’s movie with a few knowing jokes for the parents intended to go over the head of the little ones. The best family movies are experienced on entirely different levels by children and adults, and Inside Out is no exception. Kids will be enthralled by its adorable characters, bright colours, funny situations and simple message about the balance of different emotions. Adults are likely to well up in response to its heartfelt reflection on growing up and perfect capturing of that feeling of uncertainty at the beginning of adolescence when life stops being simple.
While undoubtedly one of their most adventurous and ambitious films, Inside Out doesn’t quite settle among the very best Pixar productions (Wall-E, Up, Toy Story 3). The narrative itself is never quite as interesting as the concept behind it. The film is at its most magical and engrossing in the first act, when all of the rules and structures of this world are being laid out and revealed. The story of Joy and Sadness trying to get back to the control room starts to drag a bit in the middle act. Also, in establishing the realm of the mind, Docter and Del Carmen set up a complex set of rules which they don’t consistently adhere to. If all of these characters are anthropomorphised emotions, how is it that Joy is capable of experiencing sadness while Sadness is not capable of experiencing joy? But that Inside Out doesn’t quite reach the very high standard Pixar have established with their very best films, should take nothing away from Docter and Del Carmen’s achievement.
Inside Out is a film about growing up, about farewelling the simplicity of childhood and developing an appreciation for the role that the full gamut of emotions play in bringing depth and texture to life, that manages to be both deceptively simple and deeply profound.
As has become tradition with Pixar releases, Inside Out is preceded by a short film – a cute musical called Lava about a volcano island longing for companionship.
Review by Duncan McLean
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