Say what you want about the superhero genre, over the past twenty years Pixar has turned our childhoods into a cottage history.
From the animated playthings of Toy Story to the night terrors of Monsters, Inc., with the occasional sequel and prequel thrown in, no studio has displayed such consistent inventiveness and insight into the processes of growing up.
Inside Out, the most recent brainchild of Up director Pete Docter, takes us inside the head of Riley, a precocious eleven year-old girl. From the moment the infant Riley stirred into consciousness there is Joy (voiced by Amy Poehler), a vivacious yellow sprite charged with Riley’s happiness. She’s quickly joined by dumpy blue Sadness (Phyllis Smith), volcanic red Anger (Lewis Black), sassy green Disgust (Mindy Kaling), and cringing purple Fear (Bill Hader).
Squabbling for their place on the control panel of Riley’s mind, they dictate her reactions to everything that happens, banking the memories that form and watching over the Coney Island-style floating masses that make up her personality. Joy holds sway in day to day life, keeping the others in line and Sadness sidelined.
However, when Riley’s parents (Diane Lane and Kyle McLachlan) take her from the winter wonderland of Minnesota to San Francisco — affectionately portrayed as a bit of a dump — Riley’s emotions are thrown totally out of whack. Joy suddenly finds herself ejected from headquarters at the worst possible time and, with Sadness almost literally in tow, must make her way across the perilous landscape of Riley’s mind to get home.
Inside Out is possessed of enormous creativity, both visually and conceptually, from the Bubble Shooter stacks that make up Riley’s longterm memory to Bing Bong (Richard Kind), Riley’s disregarded imaginary friend, whose part elephant, part cotton candy. While the emotions themselves are, by their nature — Anger erupts, Fear cowers, Disgust tuts — the film derives its complexity from how these interpersonal dynamics impact Riley’s life.
As a result, Riley, played by sixteen-year-old newcomer Kaityln Dias, might be the most fully-realized character in all Pixar history in how well we understand her; all the more impressive in that she’s essentially shaded with primary colors. An expressive, blue-eyed tomboy, and fundamentally happy kid, due to Joy’s influence, Riley’s whole personality is put at risk as the things that make up who she is begin to crumble into the purple chasm of the Memory Dump.
The film’s biggest achievement is in translating this complex, metaphorical environment into a fun psychological journey — inspired by the work of psychologists Dacher Keltner and Paul Ekman, it’s the closest a “kid’s film” is ever likely to get to Inception. Luckily Inside Out is not only deeply moving but laugh out loud funny; it’s sheer originality is a constant source of joy (lower case). It’s also arguably the most ambitious film about how we become who are are since Boyhood.
Having first conceived of the idea in 2009 after observing his own daughter, it’s clearly a passion project for Docter and every detail — mum’s gold-hinted memory/fantasy about a Brazilian helicopter pilot or the exact of curve of dad’s ineffectual mustache — feels expertly shaped, including Michael Giaccino’s evocative score. Which isn’t to say there’s not also a healthy dose of outright silliness, like in the jellybean guards who keep patching a catchy chewing gum jingle through to HQ, guaranteed to send Anger apoplectic.
Regardless of its precursors, like the Cranium Command ride at Epcot that Docter worked as animator on, or the old Numbskulls comic strip in the Beano, Inside Out makes a first-rate addition to the Pixar canon.
Creative and emotive in equal measure, when even the short that precedes it is a minor gem, it’s hard to argue with nostalgia when it gives us films like this.