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

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Leader: The unresolved Eurozone crisis

The continent that once aspired to be a rival superpower to the US is now a byword for decline, and ethnic nationalism and right-wing populism are thriving.

The eurozone crisis was never resolved. It was merely conveniently forgotten. The vote for Brexit, the terrible war in Syria and Donald Trump’s election as US president all distracted from the single currency’s woes. Yet its contradictions endure, a permanent threat to continental European stability and the future cohesion of the European Union.

The resignation of the Italian prime minister Matteo Renzi, following defeat in a constitutional referendum on 4 December, was the moment at which some believed that Europe would be overwhelmed. Among the champions of the No campaign were the anti-euro Five Star Movement (which has led in some recent opinion polls) and the separatist Lega Nord. Opponents of the EU, such as Nigel Farage, hailed the result as a rejection of the single currency.

An Italian exit, if not unthinkable, is far from inevitable, however. The No campaign comprised not only Eurosceptics but pro-Europeans such as the former prime minister Mario Monti and members of Mr Renzi’s liberal-centrist Democratic Party. Few voters treated the referendum as a judgement on the monetary union.

To achieve withdrawal from the euro, the populist Five Star Movement would need first to form a government (no easy task under Italy’s complex multiparty system), then amend the constitution to allow a public vote on Italy’s membership of the currency. Opinion polls continue to show a majority opposed to the return of the lira.

But Europe faces far more immediate dangers. Italy’s fragile banking system has been imperilled by the referendum result and the accompanying fall in investor confidence. In the absence of state aid, the Banca Monte dei Paschi di Siena, the world’s oldest bank, could soon face ruin. Italy’s national debt stands at 132 per cent of GDP, severely limiting its firepower, and its financial sector has amassed $360bn of bad loans. The risk is of a new financial crisis that spreads across the eurozone.

EU leaders’ record to date does not encourage optimism. Seven years after the Greek crisis began, the German government is continuing to advocate the failed path of austerity. On 4 December, Germany’s finance minister, Wolfgang Schäuble, declared that Greece must choose between unpopular “structural reforms” (a euphemism for austerity) or withdrawal from the euro. He insisted that debt relief “would not help” the immiserated country.

Yet the argument that austerity is unsustainable is now heard far beyond the Syriza government. The International Monetary Fund is among those that have demanded “unconditional” debt relief. Under the current bailout terms, Greece’s interest payments on its debt (roughly €330bn) will continually rise, consuming 60 per cent of its budget by 2060. The IMF has rightly proposed an extended repayment period and a fixed interest rate of 1.5 per cent. Faced with German intransigence, it is refusing to provide further funding.

Ever since the European Central Bank president, Mario Draghi, declared in 2012 that he was prepared to do “whatever it takes” to preserve the single currency, EU member states have relied on monetary policy to contain the crisis. This complacent approach could unravel. From the euro’s inception, economists have warned of the dangers of a monetary union that is unmatched by fiscal and political union. The UK, partly for these reasons, wisely rejected membership, but other states have been condemned to stagnation. As Felix Martin writes on page 15, “Italy today is worse off than it was not just in 2007, but in 1997. National output per head has stagnated for 20 years – an astonishing . . . statistic.”

Germany’s refusal to support demand (having benefited from a fixed exchange rate) undermined the principles of European solidarity and shared prosperity. German unemployment has fallen to 4.1 per cent, the lowest level since 1981, but joblessness is at 23.4 per cent in Greece, 19 per cent in Spain and 11.6 per cent in Italy. The youngest have suffered most. Youth unemployment is 46.5 per cent in Greece, 42.6 per cent in Spain and 36.4 per cent in Italy. No social model should tolerate such waste.

“If the euro fails, then Europe fails,” the German chancellor, Angela Merkel, has often asserted. Yet it does not follow that Europe will succeed if the euro survives. The continent that once aspired to be a rival superpower to the US is now a byword for decline, and ethnic nationalism and right-wing populism are thriving. In these circumstances, the surprise has been not voters’ intemperance, but their patience.

This article first appeared in the 08 December 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Brexit to Trump