Life of the mind: Sadness, Anger, Fear, Disgust and Joy at the controls
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All in my head: Pixar’s Inside Out is full of intellectual energy and emotional daring

We might be twenty years on from Toy Story, but Inside Out is proof that computer-animated features can still deliver giddy imaginative crescendos.

Inside Out (U)
dirs: Pete Docter, Ronaldo Del Carmen

Evidence supports the rumour that when Disney bought the computer animation studio Pixar for $7.4bn in 2006, it ordered a shift away from the unconventional (Ratatouille, WALL-E, Up) towards sequels and other projects likely to generate merchandise revenue. In this context, Inside Out represents a welcome respite. Its subject is mental health, its main characters are emotions and it takes place largely within one child’s brain. The creator of Being John Malkovich and Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind had nothing to do with the film, but that doesn’t stop it from resembling a kind of My First Charlie Kaufman Movie.

Riley is an 11-year-old girl unsettled by her family’s relocation from Minnesota to San Francisco. It’s not only that she left her friends and her snug home for a poky new house. Her father is now working round the clock and her mother has asked her to put a brave face on things: “If you and I can keep smiling,” she says, “it will really help Dad.”

At this request, the five-strong team controlling Riley’s brain starts working overtime. They’ve been policing her responses to the world since she was born: the green-faced Disgust (Mindy Kaling) is on the lookout for anything suspect at mealtimes (say, broccoli) while Fear (Bill Hader) trembles and the lobster-coloured Anger (Lewis Black) gets ready to combust.

The group’s self-appointed leader is Joy (Amy Poehler), a glowing, happy-clappy Tinkerbell with a blue pixie cut. She oversees the shipment of daydreams, which are delivered on the Train of Thought, and takes responsibility for the safekeeping of Riley’s memories, reminiscent of gaily coloured bowling balls. She also does all she can to prevent the frumpy Sadness (Phyllis Smith), in her chunky-knit sweater and bicycle-wheel glasses, from having any influence on Riley’s state of mind.

What we are seeing is repression and its consequences. When unhappiness is in effect outlawed by Riley’s mother in the external world, and by Joy in the internal one, it’s inevitable that a fuse will blow. All that disappointment and anxiety has to go somewhere.

In her overprotectiveness of Riley’s mood and memories, Joy causes herself and Sadness to be ejected accidentally from the control room in the child’s head. Stranded in the hazardous territories beyond – the French-fry fields of Imagination Land, for instance, or the surreal studios of Dream Productions – they have to find their way back without causing any damage to themselves or Riley.

It would be easy to get lost in the labyrinth where old memories are stacked along infinite aisles, or in Abstract Thought, where you could take a wrong turn and emerge as 2D or cubist. Worse of all is the Memory Dump. Should they fall in there, Sadness and Joy will be lost for ever, which sounds like a good definition of depression.

The goal of Inside Out is for Joy finally to discover the point of Sadness, but the picture itself could easily accommodate a little more of that emotion. The mania mitigates slightly against the message. In between the intricate rules laid out in the screenplay for this life of the mind, and the frantic adventures on which Joy and Sadness embark, there isn’t much space for contemplation, serenity, even boredom. The climactic revelation, radical within the context of a Hollywood movie, that unhappiness is a vital and valid emotion, is dispensed with swiftly in the race towards an upbeat ending.

But it would be churlish to complain when Inside Out is full of so many giddy imaginative crescendos, from the destruction of Riley’s childhood make-believe landscape (a castle explodes into glitter when struck by a wrecking ball) to an escape attempt from a cage made of squeaking balloons, which must be completed without disturbing a sleeping clown. Twenty years on from Toy Story, we may be in danger of taking computer animation for granted, but that is no reason to overlook the devastating image of Joy crawling in the darkness across a field of clacking memory orbs, their shape illuminated only by the stubborn glow from her body. What remains consistent in the film is the level of intellectual and emotional daring, as well as Pixar’s ability to convert that into dynamic visual storytelling that will endure long after Joy and Sadness dolls are piled high in landfills.

 

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Now listen to the discussion of Inside Out on the New Statesman's pop culture podcast:

Ryan Gilbey is the New Statesman's film critic. He is also the author of It Don't Worry Me (Faber), about 1970s US cinema, and a study of Groundhog Day in the "Modern Classics" series (BFI Publishing). He was named reviewer of the year in the 2007 Press Gazette awards.

This article first appeared in the 22 July 2015 issue of the New Statesman, How Labour went mad for Jeremy Corbyn

Photo: Getty
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Out with the old: how new species are evolving faster than ever

A future geologist will look back to the present day as a time of diversification, as well as extinction.

Human population growth, increased consumption, hunting, habitat destruction, pollution, invasive species and now climate change are turning the biological world on its head. The consequence is that species are becoming extinct, perhaps faster than at any time since the dinosaurs died out 66 million years ago. This is an inconvenient truth.

But there are also convenient truths. Britain has gained about 2,000 new species over the past two millennia, because our predecessors converted forests into managed woodlands, orchards, meadows, wheat fields, roadsides, hedgerows, ponds and ditches, as well as gardens and urban sprawl, each providing new opportunities.

Then we started to transport species deliberately. We have the Romans to thank for brown hares and the Normans for rabbits. In the 20th century, ring-necked parakeets escaped from captivity and now adorn London’s parks and gardens.

Climate warming is bringing yet more new species to our shores, including little egrets and tree bumblebees, both of which have colonised Britain in recent years and then spread so far north that I can see them at home in Yorkshire. Convenient truth No 1 is that more species have arrived than have died out: most American states, most islands in the Pacific and most countries in Europe, including Britain, support more species today than they did centuries ago.

Evolution has also gone into overdrive. Just as some species are thriving on a human-dominated planet, the same is true of genes. Some genes are surviving better than others. Brown argus butterflies in my meadow have evolved a change in diet (their caterpillars now eat dove’s-foot cranesbill plants, which are common in human-disturbed landscapes), enabling them to take advantage of a warming climate and spread northwards.

Evolution is a second convenient truth. Many species are surviving better than we might have expected because they are becoming adapted to the human-altered world – although this is not such good news when diseases evolve immunity to medicines or crop pests become resistant to insecticides.

A third convenient truth is that new species are coming into existence. The hybrid Italian sparrow was born one spring day when a male Spanish sparrow (the “original” Mediterranean species) hitched up with a female house sparrow (which had spread from Asia into newly created farmland). The descendants of this happy union live on, purloining dropped grains and scraps from the farms and towns of the Italian peninsula. Some of those grains are wheat, which is also a hybrid species that originated as crosses between wild grasses in the Middle East.

This is not the only process by which new species are arising. On a much longer time scale, all of the species that we have released on thousands of islands across the world’s oceans and transported to new continents will start to become more distinct in their new homes, eventually separating into entirely new creatures. The current rate at which new species are forming may well be the highest ever. A future geologist will look back to the present day as a time of great diversification on Earth, as well as a time of extinction.

The processes of ecological and evolutionary change that brought all of Earth’s existing biological diversity into being – including ourselves – is continuing to generate new diversity in today’s human-altered world. Unless we sterilise our planet in some unimagined way, this will continue. In my book Inheritors of the Earth, I criss-cross the world to survey the growth in biological diversity (as well as to chart some of the losses) that has taken place in the human epoch and argue that this growth fundamentally alters our relationship with nature.

We need to walk a tightrope between saving “old nature” (some of which might be useful) and facilitating what will enable the biological world to adjust to its changed state. Humans are integral to Earth’s “new nature”, and we should not presume that the old was better than the new.

“Inheritors of the Earth: How Nature Is Thriving in an Age of Extinction” by Chris D Thomas is published by Allen Lane

This article first appeared in the 20 July 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The new world disorder