Director: Pete Docter
Cast: Amy Poehler, Phyllis Smith, Lewis Black
Watch Inside Out online in the UK: Prime Video (Buy/Rent) / iTunes / TalkTalk TV / Rakuten TV / Google Play
The best Pixar films have always had an element of autobiography about them, and Inside Out reads practically like a manifesto for Pixar’s output – heck, it’s practically a tour of the studio. Gather a bunch of diverse personalities together and let them work the controls in order to inspire outrageous flights of imagination, devastating heartbreak and cinematic joy. It was only a matter of time before Pixar made the logical leap and actually made a film from the viewpoint of the emotions they have so effortlessly mined over the past 20 years.
Yes: happy birthday, Pixar! Make no mistake, 20 years after Toy Story, this is an anniversary film, a chance to take stock of the miraculous achievements forged to date and, more pertinently, an opportunity to reassert the studio’s pioneering spirit after a period of creative doldrums. While Brave and Monsters University were by no means bad films, it’s been a half-decade since the last Pixar classic, during which time key members such as Brad Bird and Andrew Stanton have left to pursue live-action dreams.
Thankfully, Pete Docter stayed behind and Inside Out offers proof that he might be Pixar’s finest mind. He’s on an unprecedented three-for-three, following Monsters, Inc. and Up. Indeed, Inside Out combines the best of both: the mechanics of how the inside of a mind work is as intricately, richly conceived as the scream-gathering factory of Monstropolis, while the ability to hit universal, hard truths through the power of funny creatures echoes the emotional force of his last film.
The initial five minutes, setting up the dynamic between the five emotions who run the nerve centre (so to speak) of 11-year-old Riley, are cute, clever and perhaps a little too airlessly perfect – it feels like a short, and, briefly, there’s the worry that this premise is so immediately graspable that it might translate to feature length. Worry not: Docter has thought about everything, dropping a brilliantly simple-but-complex emotional bomb (Riley moving house to San Francisco) into the mix that divides the group and allows sparring emotions Joy (Poehler) and Sadness (Smith) to go on a quest through increasingly inspired recesses of the human mind.
The genius of Inside Out lies in the consistency with which it uses the comic action as a metaphor for the fairly bleak drama going on outside. Riley’s world is the stuff of countless rites-of-passage movies; her reactions a long-familiar arc. But Docter refuses to take any of these emotions at face value and figures out how each can be attributable to what’s going on inside her head.
The result is endlessly complex, offering bold conclusions far beyond the cookie-cutter redemptions of most movies – and almost radical, in its embrace of sadness as a necessary correlative to joy. Sometimes, this is achieved through elegant cross-cutting, with some of the best between-world editing since Eternal Sunshine Of The Spotless Mind. Symbolism, too, is extremely well thought through: the use of marble-like balls is a stunningly robust symbol for how memory works, colour-coded for mood, lit for accessibility (literally fading when no longer recalled) and dumped into a chasm when no longer needed.
Similarly, the jokes here about annoyingly catchy earworms and the reason all kids remember Chopsticks long after piano lessons are over is inspired. Characterisation is deft, imbuing archetypes with distinct personalities (Black’s Anger is a hoot, but generally the favouring of comedians with improv skills gives a sense of synaptic fun throughout) – and then Docter shows you just how dextrous he is by peering into the minds of other characters.
There’s the pure cinematic fizz of Joy and Sadness’ quest, with compelling detours into abstract thought (the film’s most stunningly realised showcase, highlighting the variety of textures and techniques used by Docter to separate his worlds) and dream factories (watch for the posters of ‘greatest hits’ such as ‘I’m Falling Down A Deep Dark Pit’). A supporting cast of dream actors, memory sweepers and the delightful imaginary friend Bing Bong make this a psychoanalytical remake of kids’ classic The Phantom Tollbooth.
The invention level is so high that it might take you a while to realise that this is exactly the same plot as Toy Story, as two bickering buddies must patch up their differences to save a child from despair, while their hapless friends try to hold the fort in their absence. But this is an anniversary, so the emotion this link conjures up isn’t Anger but Joy; the sense that Pixar has returned to its basic values and added new core memories on top.
Photo: ©2015 Disney•Pixar. All Rights Reserved.