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23 July 2015updated 14 Sep 2021 3:09pm

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.

By Ryan Gilbey

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.

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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: