Much of Pixar’s filmography can perhaps be boiled down to one simple question: “What if [insert thing here] had feelings?”, giving us Toy Story, Monsters Inc, Finding Nemo, Cars and the like. Inside Out poses an unusual twist on that query, asking “what if feelings had feelings?”
The film takes place inside the head of Riley, a young girl whose mind is populated by five core emotions – Joy (Amy Poehler), the leader and, until Riley turns eleven, the strongest emotion their charge experiences; Sadness (Phyllis Smith); Fear (Bill Hader); Anger (Lewis Black) and Disgust (Mindy Kaling). Together, the group control Riley’s reaction to the world around her from HQ, jostling for control with Riley’s best interests at heart. Everything is going swimmingly until soon after Riley’s eleventh birthday, when the family uproots from their Minnesota home and moves to San Francisco, where Riley’s dad is setting up a new start-up. A kerfuffle between Sadness and Joy over Riley’s core memories, which determine her personality, sends the two of them to the outer reaches of Riley’s mind to her long-term memory. Joy and Sadness have to race to make it back to HQ so that Riley can be happy again, while her mind becomes increasingly unstable without them.
There is a lot of world-building to be done to explain the mechanisms and parameters for the story, but director Pete Docter, co-director Ronaldo del Carmen and co. manage to build much of it into the narrative as it unfolds, giving us the critical information we need in the first ten minutes and then letting us discover the rest alongside Joy and Sadness. The film is beautifully paced, moving between beats and exposition without losing its momentum, crediting the full range of its audience with the intelligence to keep up. Likewise the animation in Inside Out is stunning, with an aura-like texturing given to all of the emotions, and a flair for the small details of the world. The film is beautifully constructed visually, but has a simplicity at its core that is striking. The colour coding of each emotion provides a form of narrative coding as well, filling out the world of the film without bogging down the narrative.
Amy Poehler is a tour de force as Joy, instilling her with the best of the manic delight and aggressive caring that made Parks and Recreation’s Leslie Knope such a compelling character. Joy is essentially like a parent who has been shut out of her child’s mind for the first time. From long term memory, Joy cannot see what Riley is going through, only the effects as Riley slowly shuts down parts of her memory and personality. Just as Riley’s parents obliviously demand that she remain their “happy girl”, Joy is also unable to grasp the new complexities of feeling Riley is facing, and Poehler communicates this through a kind of fierce love and determination that is accessible and affecting. The other voice performances from Smith, Kaling, Hader and Black are excellent, with Richard Kind turning in a particularly sweet performance as Riley’s long-forgotten imaginary friend, Bing Bong.
By placing us inside Riley’s head, but centering us on the reactions of other characters to her mood swing, Inside Out manages to both internalise and externalise the new emotional imbalance. We are given a simple, at times funny, language for understanding why she responds the way she does to her new situation, as Fear, Anger and Disgust attempt and fail to imitate Joy. But we also see the emotion’s helplessness within that imbalance. Growing up is tough for all involved.
With Inside Out, Pixar proves again its talent for balancing light with dark, and a particular skill for the bittersweet. Crucially, the film distinguishes between sadness and depression. As Riley closes herself off from the world around her, not even those emotions remaining in HQ can have any effect on her. There is a gentle, touching and thereafter brutal narrative shift as we see Sadness, who has been set up as a force for bad, contaminating Riley’s mood, in a different light – it is when we are sad that we reach out to others, and that we allow others to reach out to us.
Inside Out paints an honest and complex picture of growing up – there are certain parts of Riley’s childhood that need to be left behind, and memories that have to be sacrificed, in order for her to grow. Inspired by his own daughter, Docter doesn’t cop out on these moments, allowing us to feel the full weight of lost childhood and giving us room to breathe within them, but he also doesn’t dwell. There are plenty of comedic moments to balance out the darker, deeper ones, with the workings of other peoples’ minds providing a great well of laughs. There is a huge risk in delivering the sort of emotional gut-punches that Docter creates in what is ostensibly a children’s film, but he manages them with aplomb, perfect timing and the balance to leave you elated.
Inside Out has perhaps provided a new language and vocabulary for parents and children to engage in discussions about feelings and mental health. It does so while delivering an entirely satisfying, heartbreaking, hilarious, devastating and intelligent ride. I cannot recommend it enough.
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