By Stephen Mayne @finalreel
With Pixar’s quite brilliant back catalogue comes great expectation. When they’ve raised the bar and leapt over it so many times before, each new release has to approach masterpiece status just to avoid disappointment. After a fallow half decade since Toy Story 3 (2010), a period that saw two entertaining, yet bland sequels (Cars 2 & Monsters University), and a pretty good original piece (Brave), the studio has come roaring back with Inside Out, once again reaching the heights so impressively scaled more times than seemed possible since Toy Story in 1995.
Inside Out, co-written and directed by Pete Docter, making it a trilogy of hits after Monsters, Inc. (2001) and Up (2009) takes place mostly inside the head of 11-year-old Riley (Kaitlyn Dias). On the surface, she’s going through the standard angst that comes with a move from her hometown of Minnesota to the very different world of San Francisco with her mother (Diane Lane) and father (Kyle MacLachlan). But it’s what’s going on beneath the surface that really makes the film shine.
A complex world operates in her head, controlled by five emotions: Joy (Amy Poehler), Sadness (Phyllis Smith), Fear (Bill Hader), Disgust (Mindy Kaling) and Anger (Lewis Black). Together, they steer Riley through the pitfalls of life, trying to ensure that each and every day ends up a happy one. In Riley’s case, as a naturally happy child, Joy takes the reins. Brief forays into other minds reveal this isn’t always the case. And it doesn’t remain the case for Riley either, a mishap depositing Joy and Sadness out into the wilderness of memory storage. Much of the story centres on their attempts to get back to the control centre and right a listing ship now under the control of the remaining emotions.
The set-up is rich with possibility, and Docter and his team make sure to exploit it. Stuck out in the unknown, Joy and Sadness find themselves mixing with discarded imaginary friends, stumbling through different thought processes including imagination land and abstract thought, crashing dream productions, a Hollywood studio send-up where Riley’s dreams are filmed live every night, and attempting to save her personality islands, a visual depiction of the most important things constituting who she is. As you’d imagine from a Pixar film, the colours are bright and bold, the use of space extraordinarily varied, and each character is given unique touches to mark them out. Joy provides her own lighting, glowing outwards, Anger bursts into red hot flame, and Disgust packs an almost permanent sneer.
That the animation is top notch is almost taken for granted now; Pixar’s standards have yet to drop. Where they’ve struggled recently is in the mix of original ideas and strong plot. Both are present in abundance here. Past masters at manipulating emotion, this time around the emotions run the show. By delving so deep into the mind of young Riley, it offers the chance to explore what makes a person tick. Their visual personification is a wonderfully creative way of showcasing her personality, and a nuanced insight into just how fragile our inner lives can be. The way emotions influence behaviour and the value they bring is brought to the fore, especially the role sadness plays. Great pathos is drawn from the gradual disappearance of Bing Bong (Richard Kind), a once beloved imaginary friend resembling a kind of pink elephant, now consigned to the recesses of Riley’s mind, and soon to be forgotten. On first glance, he’s a typical comedy clown, but he brings the biggest tear-jerking moment of the film in his last hurrah.
It’s all achieved without the segregation present in most big budget animated films that essentially split into two stories: one aimed at children, the other at adults. That doesn’t happen here. It’s a complex film, possibly too much so for young kids, but the emotional revelations Joy and co go through work for child and adult alike. The same applies to the humour. Inside Out is very funny; chock full of crazy physical gags, clever wordplay and perfectly judged voice acting, especially Poehler and Black. The occasional reference to geometric abstraction or Chinatown (1974) will go over children’s heads, the rest is unlikely to.
Inside Out is that rare film that shoots for bold ideas and a broad audience, hitting both simultaneously. There has to come a time when Pixar’s golden touch fades; it surely can’t go on indefinitely. But right now, they’re as good as ever. This is a film to be cherished from a group of people we’re privileged to have making them.
Inside Out was released theatrically on July 24th.