I realise I’m not going to be the most original reviewer in modern history by opening with this remark, but like most when I divined the unusual ethos of new Pixar film Inside Out my first thought was ‘huh, just like that sketch in the Woody Allen movie Everything You Wanted To Know About Sex (But Were Afraid To Ask) then eh?’ Like that sequence this magical new film* posits that our consciousness can be personified as a control room of an ocean liner or nuclear reactor, populated by a panoply of colourful characters representing a portfolio of emotional states. The golden hued Joy leads the film with her eternally positive, can-do attitude voiced by the spritely Amy Poehler, supported in the feminine anthropomorphisation stakes by the green hued status obsessed teenager Disgust (Mindy Kaling) and the portly, cerise hued maudlin momentum of Sadness (Phyllis Smith, or the quiet one from the American version of The Office). With his crimson crew cut shop-steward rage Lewis Black bellows as Anger, while the contorted frenzy of Fear is supplied by Bill Hader, in quivering comic relief figurine formations. From their cognitive control room the team oversee the physical structures of the mind, presiding over the distant evolved edifices of the permanent memory centres, clustered around the all important priorities of the subjects life to date – Family, Honesty, Hockey, Friendship and, erm ‘Goofball’ – each threatened with destruction and replacement as the subjects emotional state wax and wanes through the days trials and tribulations. Permanent memories, once formed and solidified are contained within mystical glowing spheres that the controllers have to harvest and situate in the pertinent sectors of the mind, tinged with a corresponding colour which besets their relation to the holistic – a fond memory of a family day will be yellow, the memory of a childhood circus interaction with a clown shaded purple for fear. If this all sounds confusing then fret not, the next section should move from the macro to the micro, I just wanted to contextually set the scene for this films remarkable psychic environment so let me be clear – having slept on it this is pretty much up there with Fury Road, It Follows and Ex Machina as the one of the best and ingenious films of the year.
But whose consciousness are our odd little avatars inhabiting? Say hello to Riley, an 11-year-old, single sibling ice-hockey fanatic whose father and mother have uprooted her from her friends and hobbies in wintry Minnesota, decanting to a strangely menacing San Francisco, setting the stage for her emotional and spiritual upheaval. As Riley struggles with the perils of a young girl hustled into unfamiliar surroundings – the uncertainty of a new school and fear of making new friends, her loving yet (to her) neglectful parents causing anger and rage – her internal analogues are launched on an internal rollercoaster journey, to preserve her core memories from an earlier, happier time, and preserve her root consciousness from collapse into melancholic depression and despair – if that isn’t conceptually ambitious for a film overtly aimed at a young prepubescent demographic then I’ll eat my figurative hat. After a string of sorely sub-par efforts such as Monsters University, Brave and the truly tepid Cars films it is a blessing to shout of Pixar’s blazing return to form. The success rests on the ambitious premise and exquisite execution that director Pete Docter (who was also behind Up and Monsters Inc.) pushes to a conceptual ceiling, chronologically not confusing in its internal logic and psychiatric sympathies, an Inception for infants if you will. Unlike that movies threat of Freudian assassins lurking in the shadows Inside Out is revolutionary with a total lack of a villain, of a primary antagonist to pollute Riley’s evolving psyche, some frenzied figure to interfere and sabotage her emotional bunch of brain dwelling bodachs. Given that Docter even resorted to the ‘baddie’ explorer in Up as someone to drive the final act climax his evolution mirrors the advanced techniques that Pixar are piloting, as the lack of psychological philanderer parses with the story themes of accepting and understanding that a balance of states is as healthy and desirable as being constantly upbeat and joyous, with equilibrium being reached through a melancholy modal mix.
One of the beauties of Pixar performing at their peak is the almost effortless way they manage to align movies for kids and adults alike, without patronising turns, characters or instantly degrading pop-culture references to wider media trends or products – ‘hey, that talking dolphin just referenced Lady Gaga’s latest controversial video, how adorable’. Instead in their best films they embroider their narratives with something genuine and thoughtful to say about life, regardless of what stage of evolution the individual audience member finds themselves. I don’t know what sorcery their boffins have secretly enshrined in their silicon valley HQ but it propels their movies as empathic engines, with a genuine heart that almost immediately generates sympathic connections for what is essentially a high density collection of polygons and pathos. Inside Out really struts its inventive instincts when we are transported into an identical central nervous systems in other characters heads, most notably Riley’s mother (Diane Lane) and father (Kyle MacLachlan), a concept that belches gasoline on the comedic possibilities that the giggling writers mine to the fore. Wisely though the design is restricted for key moments as the vast majority of the tale takes place in Riley’s mind, not diluting her core adventure and evolution as the films primary path. The film reaches early heights when Joy and her companions traverse through ‘dream land’ and the ‘place of ideas’, including a quite brilliant aside in abstract thinking which sees the empathic avatars transmogrified into cubist abstractions, before pushing the concept even further with a manipulation of cinematic planes of axis which would make Chuck Jones and Tex Avery proud. Cinephiles will whelp with delight with the conceptual dimensions of ‘dream land’ being personified as a 1930’s Hollywood studio (what else?), the production team re-enacting the days key events in order to manage their subconscious digestion. The sequence is peppered with marketing posters of past attractions such as ‘I’m Falling Down A Well’ and ‘Someone Is Following Me’, a density of visual bricolage which will enhance enjoyment of the picture through repeat revisits. There is also something to be mused about the day-glo gremlins operating Riley’s emotional states observing her reactions on what could be considered a cinema screen, complete with memory defused projector (that will make more sense when you see the film) and the forms and formula that cinema grammar and techniques use to manipulate an audiences emotional and even physical states. But that, I think, is a tale for another time.
I have to say the initial marketing of the films concept elicited a bare perceptible shrug from cynical ole me, so I admit to going into this rather cold, in fact it was only the glowing twitter reviewers which actually led me to the multiplex. I’m glad I did as this is top-tier Pixar, the purveyors of the greatest 21st century American animation, elegant and timeless the film is right up there with The Incredibles, Up and the Toy Story pictures. As you’d expect the craft is simply spectacular, the colours as vivid and glorious as a Christmas Day morning, with a tensile definition to prismatic spongy skin tones, soulful, orbital eyes, and the delicate bounce of individual strands of holographic hair. Through some podcast interviews I have learned that the project went through the usual crisis phase over its six-year gestation period, it seems that every one of the studios modern classics has suffered a similar baptism of fire (was it the original or second Toy Story that was completely scuppered and begun over with a ridiculous nine month release deadline or something?), yet somehow they manage to pull a superb film of the potential smouldering wreckage and just shame the output of the other studios animation arms. The voice acting is as perfectly cast as always, with perhaps Poehler investing her role with the perfect balance of energetic enthusiasm and delicate emotional development. I have no doubt that Inside Out will invite psychoanalytic readings worthy of Lacan or Freudian fanatics, with the floating id islands self-disintegrating & reforming in new superstructures as our pubescent protagonist moves through the various stages of ego development, where even a obligatory deja vu gag falls on appreciative ears. Finally, a deathly warning – if you have children then beware, in certain scenes this film will fucking obliterate you into a quivering mass of protoplasmic, weeping mush, a cathartic celebration of childhood in this magnificent and moving return to form;
*As for the traditional short Lava that plays before the main feature here is the most trenchant observation of the year ‘It was OK, but it would have been even cuter if both the volcanos had been lumpy and weird looking. It was like Michael Elphick getting together with Lethal Weapon 3 era Rene Russo or something…..’