On a purely personal level, I believe Pixar has been on a bad streak for several years now. Ever since the breathtaking majesty of Toy Story 3 back in 2010 we’ve had to endure the crass commercialisation of Cars 2 in 2011, the (in my opinion) drastically over-praised Brave in 2012 and 2013’s unnecessary prequel Monsters University. From the heights of the Ratatouille/WALL-E/Up/Toy Story 3 run, Pixar had fallen, with the Disney takeover prime in everyone’s mind when trying to figure out why.
A year’s break for new releases in 2014 must surely have given the production team some much needed breathing room, considering that they have, for the first time in the company’s history, two films coming out in 2015. Inside Out is the first one up, seeing Pete Doctor retake the primary director’s seat, and renewed hope that Pixar might reverse the slump. Critical praise has been the trend for Inside Out, but does the film hold-up? Or is the Pixar magic rapidly running out?
Riley (Kaitlyn Dias) is an 11 year old girl who has recently moved with her family from Missouri to San Francisco. Inside her mind are five emotions piloting her mood: Preppy Joy (Amy Poehler) bleak Sadness (Phyllis Smith), touchy Anger (Lewis Black), terrified Fear (Bill Hader) and sassy Disgust (Mindy Kaling). When the stress of the move and the new environment start to give Sadness more time at the helm than the usually dominant Joy, Riley’s emotions must confront a potential disaster within their hosts psyche.
I’m happy to say that Pixar is back on form with Inside Out. While it may not be quite on the same level of Up or WALL-E, it’s an imaginative, fun and emotionally satisfying story, that is bound to enthral audiences of all ages. In other words, it’s the kind of Pixar film that Pixar haven’t been able to make for several years. The core reason for this, I feel, is the way that the narrative successfully manages to have a branching structure between the internal journey of the five emotions and the more relatable misfortunes and unhappiness that Riley is suffering in the real world.
The five emotions and their story, centred primarily around the dichotomy provided by Joy and Sadness, allows Inside Out to be the sort of unique inventive thing that Toy Story, Ratatouille, Up and WALL-E were, full of fantastical characters, fantastical locations and fantastical plots, that still managed to resonate with the viewer because of the way everything was imbued with that vital sense of humanity. The big five play off each other wonderfully, especially the three of Anger, Fear and Disgust when left alone together, and there is something simply fascinating in seeing these personifications of Joy and Sadness go on a journey of discovery, where the whole point is to find out about their changing natures and necessity. The performances, from a host of comedy’s top starts, not least the wonderful Poehler and Smith, are near flawless: Leslie Knope and Phylis from The Office are obviously all over their respective characters, but the interaction between the two works wonderfully.
And that’s matched by the more believable drama happening in the real world. I defy any audience member for Inside Out not to feel some bit of sympathy for poor Riley. Maybe you never had to move, but I’m sure we have all been in a position where we’ve lost something very vital in our lives because of the, still good natured but damaging, actions of our parents. There is a point in everyone’s life, that I think many of us forget, when feelings of joy are no longer the prime movers of our hearts. For Riley that time is the age of 11, but, when it comes to making that connection with the audience, it doesn’t really matter. We can see bits of ourselves in the perils that Riley faces: humiliations at school that remain fixed in the mind, seeing your parents differently for the first time, or feelings of disconnection with things that were previously very important. Inside Out just gets how painful this stage of growing up can be, and gives a frank and emotionally touching depiction of it onscreen. The Riley stuff serves as a decent counter-balance to the sometimes zany fantasy of her internal emotions, and Kaitlyn Dais’ performance, from an actress that is the very definition of “unknown” before now, is to be commended.
But as strong as Riley’s arc is in Inside Out – and boy is it strong, especially as the lines between her and the actions of her emotions start to blur in the third act – it is the internal stuff that we’ve come to see, and through the journey’s of Joy and Sadness we see a colourful mirror image of Riley’s own visible emotional pain. Joy, the firstborn of Riley’s core emotions, is so used to being on top, making the plans, picking the path and relegating Sadness to a tertiary level, that the sudden onset of depression-esque feelings leaves her at a loss. There is something great in how cartoony Joy is initially depicted, and how she is portrayed as ever more desperate, ever more willing to do something stupid to get her way, ever more unfavourably, as the film goes on. The counterpoint, in the form of Sadness, is also great. The lethargy, the self-blame, the inability to remain calm and rational in the face of problems, all come out in the role of this personification, whose journey revolves around finding her true place within Riley’s psyche, if Riley is going to have anything resembling a healthy one. Inside Out becomes an unlikely two hander at sections, Joy’s larger than life positivity machine against Sadness’s straight man cynicism, but it all works on multiple levels, be it for simple comedy or existential debate.
Inside Out lacks a villain to centre its plot around – I kept waiting for one to arrive, and thought Riley’s imaginary friend Bing Bong, played with great enthusiasm by the ever underappreciated Richard Kind – might fulfil that role. Pixar has done OK with its antagonists in the past, but Inside Out is a film that really doesn’t require one, and coming to that realisation, that a much greater, more intangible problem forms the bad guy of the film, is part and parcel of the journey that the audience goes on. Sometimes, there is a Charles F. Muntz or an Auto or a Lots-O to hit out at, but in a story like this, the very point is that villains often aren’t as easy to vanquish.
Beyond all of that, Inside Out is still an awesome fun-filled ride, a trip through the mind of a pre-pubescent girl where the production team are taking every chance to showcase their ideas for what such a landscape will look like. The pit of lost memories, Dream Productions, Imagination-Land, and the Islands of Personality – all fully realised locations, which serve as important benchmarks to the characters and the story – could easily have become a lottery of random settings with not enough to link them altogether. But, unlike drek of the calibre of Cars 2, it is clear that a great deal of care has gone into the world being depicted here, which is as amusing, inventive and enthralling as any other fantasy-scape that Pixar have brought an audience through. This aspect of Inside Out is just plain clever, and it is almost a relief to write that word in the description of a Pixar film.
Visually, Pixar has knocked this out of the ark, and into the same general area of some of its better efforts. The whole thing is delightfully colourful, in every aspect: great care has obviously been taken to insure that every scene or group of characters contrast with each other vividly, marking everybody and everything out, with the accompanying direction being of a fairly high standard. There are one of two moments when things get a little bit iffy – a few action sequences look a little rushed, with characters not interacting with the ground all that well for instance – but these are easily forgettable. The script sparkles with warmth, feeling, humour and humanity, from Joy’s gentle put downs of Sadness to Riley’s gradual turning against her parents. The humour here is the perfect mix of kid-friendly zaniness and more adult jokes for the parents and others who have become inexorably drawn to Pixar. You can appreciate Bing Bong antics alongside Fear’s bored reaction to the latest Dream Productions awful-fest. But the script of Doctor and Ronnie del Carmen is probably at its best when it takes a serious turn, from Sadness’ comforting of a grief-stricken Bing Bong to Riley’s own growing need to enunciate her depression over the move to San Francisco.
Some brief spoiler talk follows.
-I quite enjoyed the “Lava” short that played before the film. The heat (ha!) that it has engendered from some quarters, on charges of it being insipid and poorly animated, just don’t wash with me. I thought it was sweet and unique, and well worth watching. At its worst, it’s an inoffensive fairy tale, and the OTT reaction to it, by some, strikes me as remarkably small and petty.
-Back on Inside Out, I can’t really think of another film that so well depicts things like depression in the young, and the strange confluence of joy and sadness. Inside Out’s key message – that feeling sad is OK, and that grief is a necessary part of anyone’s emotional wellbeing – is the sort of thing that should be more prevalent in society I feel.
-The connection between Joy and Sadness – aside from the fact that they are the first two of Riley’s emotions to surface – is made clear throughout, not least in the simple fact that they have the same hair. As the ties between the emotions of joy and sadness become clearer in Inside Out, Joy and Sadness, as characters, seem closer to sisters.
-In amidst the revelry of the scene used in most promotional material, at the dinner table, I was struck by how Riley’s mother seems to have Sadness in a prime position. Was that a visual commentary on the nature of motherhood and parenting? Or just the reality of being an adult?
-Kyle McLachlan voiced Riley’s father, doing a fine job in a very understated role.
-“Come fly with me Katchena…” Yeah, I laughed a lot. Both times.
-There is so much of Inside Out’s internal universe that connects with the audience, and my favourite was probably the idea of “core memories”, those moments in your life that, while you might look at them differently over time, never leave your mind.
-Bing Bong was a fun character, but no surer sign of Riley’s growth as a person than his vanishing in the pit, though not before one last effort at saving Riley’s Joy. Bing Bong was already discarded, but remembered fondly, but in Riley’s new situation, he is cast off from her psyche completely, not even to be remembered, something too childish to be retained.
-When Joy abandons Sadness, it felt so utterly proper for her character to do so. Such a selfish act well fitted the person that Joy had been depicted as being: superior, impossible to argue with and set only on her own gratification.
-Which made Sadness finding her proper place within Riley’s mind all the more satisfying. From the moment she is able to get Bing Bong going again, it becomes clear how necessary Sadness is to Riley, and to all of our lives. Healthy grieving is a necessity for strong mental well-being.
-Man, how terribly creepy was the pit of lost memories? A place where happy times gone by go to vanish forever, absent life or the possibility to escape. It added something truly hellish to Riley’s psyche.
-I did really enjoy “Dream Productions” and the nice bit of good-natured satire of Hollywood celebrities and process that took place there. “Called it”.
-Riley’s decision to run away is the perfect example of childish thinking in action, and the natural result of having impulsive heads like Anger, Fear and Disgust in command of her psyche. A rejection of her problems in San Francisco that does not tackle them in any way is a nice precursor to a more grown, mature Riley afterwards.
-I really liked the montage of minds at the conclusion, but especially the young boy who is slackjawed when Riley speaks to him, his emotions simply screaming “GIRL! GIRL! GIRL!” in panic. I think we’ve all been that guy, at some point in our lives.
–Inside Out namedrops the oncoming period of puberty twice in the closing stages, which screams “set-up for a sequel” to me. Pixar’s track record with those is very mixed – the Toy Story franchise on the one hand, the Cars franchise on the other – but I could stand to see another film with this premise, with added adolescent angst thrown in to flavour the pot.
Inside Out is great. In the best traditions of Pixar, it’s a neat idea taken to a lot of great places, which manages to worm its way into the heart of the audience, making a substantial impression that other recent Pixar offerings can only dream of replicating. The cast are doing a great job, the film looks really strong visually and the script does all that is required of it. Inside Out tackles a very important issue in a very awesome and touching way, managing to mix various different strands of comedy into a narrative that, at times, is also the right shade of sombre. And, for all that, it is still an uplifting cathartic experience too, one bound to leave even the most cynical audience member smiling as the credits roll. Much like Cinderella earlier this year, the brazen brightness and positivity of Inside Out, despite its very serious subject matter, is something that deserves a bigger place in cinema. Strongly recommended.
(All images are copyright of Walt Disney Studios Motion Pictures).