Inside Out: tales of ordinary sadness

Pete Docter’s Inside Out, argued our August 2015 cover feature, was a spellbinding return to form for Pixar Studios, offering a remarkably thorough exploration of the human psyche and a shrewd examination of the value of sadness in everyday life.

Inside Out (2015)

One of the most celebrated and poignant scenes in Mad Men comes in the final episode of season one: meeting a delegation from Eastman Kodak, ad executive Don Draper pitches his proposed campaign for the company’s new slide projector. Don tells the Kodak people how a veteran copywriter once explained to him the concept of nostalgia: “It’s delicate, but potent… In Greek, nostalgia literally means ‘the pain from an old wound’. It’s a twinge in your heart far more powerful than memory alone.” 

As he talks, Don uses the projector to give a slide show, using images of his own home life, moments with his wife and children that are all the more poignant because we know the Drapers’ family happiness is long past. In a speech that expertly works the emotions of those present, Don turns a simple machine into something mythical, a resonant metaphor for memory and the possibility of accessing it. The projector, he explains, is really “a time machine… It takes us to a place where we ache to go again. It’s not called ‘The Wheel’, it’s called ‘The Carousel’. It lets us travel the way a child travels – round and around and back home again, to a place we know we are loved.”

The idea of nostalgia, and the moment when we discover its meaning – when we first realise that the past truly is the past – is central to Inside Out, the latest animation from Pixar Studios. Directed and co-written by Pete Docter – who made Monsters, Inc. and Up – Inside Out is, among other things, about the dawning of nostalgic awareness within an 11-year-old girl named Riley. Early in the film, Riley and her parents leave their Minnesota home – where her happiness stems from domestic stability and her love of ice hockey – and move to San Francisco. Wrenched away from her old friends and vulnerable in her new school, Riley – overwhelmed by a massive surge of sorrow – undergoes a sort of psychic breakdown. But the payoff of the narrative is that sadness is valuable, for it is through that emotion, and eventually her ability to express it, that Riley repairs her damaged bond with her parents – and returns to the place she knows she is loved. Once-happy memories have taken on the tinge of sadness, but these same memories, now charged with the ache of nostalgia, are at once Riley’s ‘wound’ and its cure. The film’s lesson is that you can’t go home again (although Riley contemplates escaping back to Minnesota) but you can remember home – and that, Inside Out concludes, is the key to embarking on a new life, in this case adulthood. 

Inside Out (2015)

Now this account of the story is somewhat misleading, because it suggests that Riley is the protagonist; in fact, Inside Out lives up to its title for Riley is really, as the makers have termed it, the film’s “setting”. The story takes place inside her head: it begins with her birth, in a dark unformed space that is her nascent psyche. In an extraordinary fiat lux moment, the newborn Riley’s first perception of the world, in the form of her parents’ beaming faces, appears on a sort of primal movie screen, resembling a white glowing cloud. In the dark space of consciousness there appears the first of the film’s characters proper – personifications of Riley’s feelings, beginning with Joy, depicted as a big-eyed, exuberant Tinkerbell-like sprite and voiced by Amy Poehler. Joy is soon joined by Sadness (Phyllis Smith, from the American The Office), a lugubrious blue nerd-girl in horn-rims and turtleneck sweater. Others come along to form a team of five: Anger (Lewis Black), a squat, combustible creature of red sponge; Disgust (Mindy Kaling), who safeguards little Riley against such dangers as broccoli; and Fear (Bill Hader), a quivering neurotic.

These five station themselves at a USS Enterprise-style console inside Riley’s head, monitoring her responses and working hard to ensure her healthy psychic functioning. The premise is similar to the old Beano strip ‘The Numskulls’, in which a race of little men operate the human body, and even more so to the early 90s US sitcom Herman’s Head, about a magazine fact checker and four personified aspects of his psyche who argue constantly about his thought processes. Inside Out has no villain: the conflict is all internal. Frenetically upbeat Joy – with Poehler bringing strong echoes of her TV role as Parks and Recreation’s eager-beaver small-town official Leslie Knope – is determined to captain Riley’s psyche, and constantly battling Sadness, who can’t help turning the globes that represent Riley’s memories from gold to blue, recharging them with sorrow. The story concludes in Joy’s acceptance of Sadness as a vital functional part of Riley’s psychic economy; the film actually suggests that the pursuit of happiness at the expense of other emotions is a misguided compulsion, whatever that pursuit’s place in the ideologies of Disney and the USA.

What’s remarkable is how thoroughly Inside Out explores its premise, constructing a model of the human psyche that is visually and narratively entertaining, in a film calculated to appeal to the widest possible age range. Adults will relish the psychological, cultural and cinematic in-jokes; small children will enjoy the adventure and such oddball characters as Riley’s near-forgotten imaginary friend Bing Bong, a cat-elephant hybrid made of candyfloss (a sort of meta-character embodying the polymorphous bricolage of the pre-school imagination, but also a parody of the Jar Jar Binks strain of cloying goofiness).

Meanwhile, in an educational and/or therapeutic turn, viewers of Riley’s age or slightly older are afforded an insight into their own emotional dynamics. Powerful visual metaphors evoke the way in which children’s maturing minds gradually let go of childish things: in Riley’s psyche, redundant memories literally dissolve into dust, while seemingly solid centres of obsession, like her beloved hockey, depicted as one of the ‘personality islands’ that define her identity, crash into the abyss of oblivion. More than most films given the label, Inside Out is genuinely a coming-of-age story – although it is clear that this particular adventure depicts only one of many comings-of-age that Riley will face. As the film ends, it leaves us, and Riley’s emotions, contemplating her future as her now overhauled and refortified psyche prepares her for adolescence.

Inside Out (2015)

Inside Out itself plays on a strong sense of visual nostalgia, which comes across in the design. Pixar films have characteristically established idiosyncratic worlds with their own sets of rules and possibilities; the most radical version yet of this tendency, Inside Out dreams up an entire geography for an imaginary space in which every element stands for some aspect of the mind. We begin in the still amorphous space of a baby’s consciousness, where new memories, as they form, appear in the shape of balls glowing gold (for happiness), which slide along rails into a pinwheel mechanism resembling a set of brightly coloured flowers: a basic, bright Play School/Sesame Street phase of the imagination. The emotions themselves are ostensibly simple cartoon characters in vivid colours – like 3D versions of the schematic figures that might have appeared in American instructional cartoons in the 1950s. They actually have a 50s look: Fear, anxious and buttoned-up in V-neck and bow-tie; Disgust, an eye-rolling high-school princess in ballet shoes and neckscarf; Sadness, resembling a dumpy high-schooler who’s just read Bonjour Tristesse. 

But the characters also embody something new in terms of CGI: entirely unrealistic figures, they come across overtly as representations, ideas, rather than as autonomous creatures. Seemingly solid in form, they prove on closer inspection to be formed of much the same luminous fibre as Riley’s mind-screen: their hair a textured hybrid of wool and light, their bodies dissolving into rough flecks of light at the edges. These are immaterial creatures, far removed from the plastic-looking solidity of the Toy Story or Monsters, Inc. characters. 

Inside Out lays out a map of the psyche as both landscape and economy – one conceived in strikingly mechanistic terms, which may or may not find approval among followers of such child development theorists as Jean Piaget or John Bowlby. Still, Inside Out’s psychology displays a coherence that seems all the more witty, vivid and sophisticated in the context of a commercial family animation. The filmmakers took inspiration from the ‘psychoevolutionary’ theory propounded by US psychologist Robert Plutchik, who suggested that behaviour was motivated by eight basic emotions – the five featured in the film, plus surprise, anticipation and trust. (Emerging from the press screening in Cannes, my colleague Leslie Felperin commented, “Where was Guilt?” One can only imagine that it will feature strongly in an eventual sequel about Riley’s teenage years, alongside Libido, Angst and other adult favourites).

With its concrete representation of abstract states, Inside Out follows a long tradition that takes in medieval passion plays, allegorical odysseys such as The Pilgrim’s Progress, and the 17th-century French ‘Carte de Tendre’, which depicted the vicissitudes of love in the form of an imaginary map. There are also echoes of Norton Juster’s 1961 children book The Phantom Tollbooth (made into an animated feature by Chuck Jones, released in 1970), which imagined a journey through a similarly allegorical landscape of the imagination. 

Inside Out (2015)

The mindscape in Inside Out is mapped out in visual and verbal wordplay that puts abstractions into concrete form. Wandering through the expanses of Riley’s psyche, Joy and Sadness attempt to travel back to HQ on a Train of Thought. En route, they admire the landscape below: “There’s Inductive Reasoning, there’s Déjà Vu… There’s Critical Thinking, there’s Déjà Vu…” The control room of Riley’s mind looks out on a range of islands, concretions of themes that define her personality as it presently is: islands of Family, Friendship, Honesty and Hockey, a Goofball Island representing childhood merriment. 

The Imagination is represented as a theme park filled with things that are beginning to disappear as Riley matures: we witness the demolition of the Stuffed Animal Hall of Fame, and see a princess-style palace explode into fairy dust, a shower of rainbow-coloured pixels (a wink at an archetype aggressively marketed by Walt Disney, Pixar’s parent company since 2006). This theme of psychic transformation and renewal runs throughout. Riley’s memories stack up to be stored in a vast brain-shaped library, but there isn’t room for every one. So a team of maintenance workers, resembling Despicable Me’s Minions, weed out redundant memories: they throw away most American presidents and the piano pieces that Riley has learned (but leave ‘Heart and Soul’ and ‘Chopsticks’). 

Inside Out’s two most inspired extended gags are specifically filmic. One is its representation of the formation of dreams as a Hollywood-style studio, with posters for hit productions – I’m Falling Down a Well, Someone Is Following Me. It’s here that the sleeping mind’s movies are shot, with a ‘reality distortion filter’ fitted on the camera lens.  

The other tour de force sequence, and the most bizarre – like a collision between the aesthetics of CGI and LSD – follows Joy, Sadness and Bing Bong as they venture into a forbidden area, the zone of Abstract Thought. There, their three-dimensional shapes are drastically altered – dismantled, stripped down, Picasso-fied. This sequence is at once an account of thought processes as applied to visual forms, and a joke about the structures of CGI illusionism itself, of which 3D realism is only one possible manifestation. “We’re abstracting,” yell the characters, as they devolve into symbols, colours, disconnected planes. “Oh no, we’re non-figurative.”

Inside Out (2015)

In its complexity and audacity, Inside Out feels like a return to Pixar’s former inspiration and depth, following a spell in which the studio’s brilliance seemed to have faded and its brand identity dissipated. This was the period in which the company’s long-term figurehead John Lasseter became increasingly involved with Disney as its chief creative officer, and in which Lasseter’s own sub-par Cars (co-directed by Joe Ranft, 2006) spawned the bland Planes spin-offs made by DisneyToon Studios. Pixar’s Brave (2012) felt worryingly close to the aesthetic of its rival DreamWorks, while Monsters University (2013) was a weary rehash of former glories. Notwithstanding the brilliance of 2010’s Toy Story 3 (a film I’ll admit to severely underrating in my Sight and Sound review at the time), it has been six years since Pixar invented something entirely new, in Up.

Inside Out, however, offers not only a complete new from-the-ground-up concept, but one that truly displays the Pixar rather than the Disney touch (significantly, at the Cannes press screening, there was some booing for Disney’s opening ident, but cheers for Pixar’s). The film is very much in keeping with a distinctive theme of the Pixar cycle: the elaboration of a theory of childhood and maturing, one that runs through Toy Story’s dramas of object attachment, Monsters, Inc., which explores the creative potential of childhood fear, and Up, with its reminder that the old were once children too. 

But perhaps what most decisively makes Inside Out a Pixar film is its dimension of self-awareness. The studio’s films have always been famous for their direct address to the emotions, for the ways in which they manage to deeply move even the most sophisticated viewers (you can, if you like, take that as a synonym for ‘critics’) by bringing into play simple emotional themes treated in a complex and intelligent fashion. On one level, Inside Out offers a lesson in emotional literacy that’s as mundane as any offered by your average young adult novel – Sadness shouldn’t be repressed but valued. Tears matter too. 

Yet it gets this message across in a singularly self-reflexive manner: showing us Riley’s feelings at work, literally pushing her buttons, the film offers an open demonstration of Pixar’s own techniques for manipulating us emotionally. With those techniques fully laid bare, Inside Out challenges us to stay unaffected – or to partake consciously and freely in the pleasure of being manipulated. When Sadness gets her moment of glory at the end, as Joy realises that she is not the only player that counts in the psychic economy, I defy you not to get an empathetic lump in the throat. Pixar still knows better than anyone in the movie game how to work that “twinge in your heart”. It’s delicate, but potent.