Film of the week: Inside Out

Psychology for all the family: Pixar give fun and colour to an uprooted 11-year-old’s mental trauma.

One of Sight & Sound’s best films of 2015.

Nick Pinkerton
Updated:

from our August 2015 issue

Inside Out (2015)

Inside Out (2015)

The latest computer-animation feature from Disney Pixar, Inside Out is an epic journey across a fantastic landscape which also happens to be compellingly concerned with the quotidian experience of an 11-year-old girl.

Because of her father’s work, Riley (voiced by Kaitlyn Dias) is uprooted from her life in bright, clean, suburban Minneapolis and moved to a sinister-looking old house in San Francisco. The general trajectory of her displacement follows that of Peanuts creator Charles M. Schulz, who would always remember the trauma of being uprooted from Saint Paul, MN, to live for two years in dusty Needles, California, at the age of six, though there’s also an autobiographical touch here – like Schulz, Pete Docter, who directed and co-wrote Inside Out as well as Pixar’s Up (2009), is a Minnesota native. Moreover, in making the crux of his drama the inner life of a child who doesn’t want to leave behind her familiar Midwest, Docter may be acknowledging no less a canonical work than Vincente Minnelli’s Meet Me in St Louis (1944).

I don’t mean to weigh down Inside Out with such hefty precedents, from which it is removed by the distance of decades and its state-of-the-art technological toolkit, only to say that it shows the same respect for the feelings of children, tempered with the wistful knowledge of adulthood, that they do. Docter’s film doesn’t have a single moment of wrenching climax on the level of Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas, twining the saccharine and sublime, but it is marked throughout by merry invention.

Inside Out (2015)

Inside Out (2015)

The basic premise – offering a backstage glimpse of a cabinet of personified emotions governing a person’s actions – is not unheard of; when I was young, there was a lousy Fox sitcom called Herman’s Head (1991-94), which functioned around essentially the same concept. Docter and his team, however, have gone so far as to create an entire ecosystem behind Riley’s psyche. There are, for starters, the five colour-coded emotions, the most prominently featured being Joy (Amy Poehler), a sprightly pixie with a lemon-yellow complexion, and Sadness (Phyllis Smith), a stuffy-sounding Debbie Downer who looks a bit like Violet Beauregarde from Willy Wonka & the Chocolate Factory (1971) in mid-blueberry-transformation phase.

In a headquarters that’s like a stratosphere-thrusting flight-control tower, these gremlins process Riley’s incoming memories, appropriately colour-coded to signify the feeling that presided over the moment. The memories are visualised as lustrous spheres in which the dim reflection of the moment they contain can be seen playing on a loop; they are approximately the size of bowling balls, and rack up in the mission control in much the same way before being dispersed into long-term memory, a labyrinthine archive whose undulous shelves, seen from above, resemble the convoluted folds of the brain’s surface.

The film’s crisis – in which odd-couple Joy and Sadness find themselves stranded in long-term memory, leaving lunatics Fear (Bill Hader), Disgust (Mindy Kaling) and Anger (Lewis Black) in charge of the asylum – is precipitated by unprecedented goings-on in mission control, as Sadness suddenly begins to pollute happy memories with her touch, turning them from yellow to blue. The experience this represents, in which a memory that was once a source of joy is newly cast in a melancholy light, is universally understood, and Inside Out finds a novel, concise, poignant way to visualise it – no small accomplishment, this. Every bit as indelible is a visit to an ash-heap of discarded and dying memories, burnt-out cast-offs which are seen to resolve into puffs of dust – a scene that feels closer to training-wheels Alain Resnais than the likes of Minions.

Inside Out (2015)

Inside Out (2015)

If this sounds a bit sad-sack, it should be added that Inside Out is a wildly entertaining movie, stuffed with ingenious little call-back gags (a chewing-gum jingle gets a good workout), a spritz of Borscht Belt spirit from chimeric imaginary friend Bing Bong (Richard Kind) and various flights of visual invention, including the dungeons of the Subconscious, a soundstage where dreams are produced, and a detour through Abstract Thought which doubles as an abridged history of non-representational art.

All that’s missing, thankfully, is the material that’s considered obligatory in a great deal of animated kids’ fare – the lacklustre fart gags and pop-trash dance-offs and wwwHHHoooAAAhhh rollercoaster loop-the-loop action set pieces. There is a moral to the story, of course, but it’s a good one as these things go, a gentle reprimand to a culture that monomaniacally insists on the primary importance of happiness too much for its own good. In a crowded field of entertainments that live in the mind only for the time they’re before the eyes, here is a work destined for the long-term memory.

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