Director: Pete Docter
Cast: Amy Poehler, Phyllis Smith, Richard Kind, Bill Hader, Mindy Kaling, Lewis Black.
Running time: 103 Minutes
Released 24th July
The literal definition of animation is the process of imbuing an object with motion – or to be more poetic, it’s to bring something to life. Pixar Studios has never shirked from this mission statement, even in its corporate logo of a hopping desk lamp that puts the ‘i’ in Pixar; in mere seconds, a lowly utilitarian object projects agency, mobility and emotion. Pixar has shown us that lamps have feelings; toys have feelings (Toy Story); robots have feelings (Wall-E); even Cars have feelings. In Inside Out, the latest Pixar production, we reach Peak Pixar, where even the feelings have feelings.
Inside Out takes place almost entirely inside the head of an 11-year old girl named Riley. We are introduced to the five personified emotions that influence her every action and reaction at a control centre in the Headquarters of her conscious mind: Joy, Sadness, Anger, Fear, and Disgust. (Funny glimpses into the Headquarters of other characters reveal that other people – and animals! – have a similar set-up.) In an introductory narration, Joy describes the creation of emotionally-charged memories, and how these memories shape Riley’s character, with the most dominant core memories powering ‘islands’ representing aspects of her personality such as her family, goofiness, and love of hockey. It’s a beautiful illustration of what could be a difficult, intangible concept.
The emotions playfully bicker over the correct way to respond to outside forces, although Joy perkily strives to maintain control over Riley, being particularly perturbed when the mopey blue Sadness has any influence. But when Joy and Sadness are accidentally expelled from headquarters, they face a long journey back down the yellow brick road of Riley’s mind, encountering among other things her Train of Thought, the recesses of her subconscious, and a displaced imaginary friend named Bing Bong (Richard Kind). The timing of this could not be worse for Riley herself, who has just moved across the country with her parents. Equally lacking in the ability to be happy or sad, she struggles to cope with the changes around her, with Fear, Anger and Disgust as her only recourse at an already difficult time.
Riley’s story is a classic one, but told from a highly unusual perspective, only possible through animation. Typically for Pixar, the film is beautiful, colourful, and awesome without ever being too visually overwhelming, while a scene set in the realm of Riley’s ‘abstract thoughts’ allows for some play with the medium. The voice acting is superb, and far from being one-note, each actor perfectly captures both the extremes and subtleties of their respective emotion. My one gripe would be that Mindy Kaling’s Disgust never really gets a moment to shine, while Bill Hader’s Fear has a hilarious reaction to a nightmare and Lewis Black’s Anger is well-realised in terms of costuming, props and his character’s range from mild annoyance to full-blown rage.
It’s Joy and Sadness that carry this film though, with Amy Poehler’s characteristic liveliness perfectly played, ranging from positive to almost dangerously manic. Phyllis Smith steals the film by being consistently, quietly devastating as Sadness, and the conclusion of her arc – from her initial marginalisation by Joy, to an ultimate acceptance that Sadness is necessary and even important – is an unexpectedly powerful statement. Director Pete Docter, also responsible for Pixar’s Up, showcases again his ability for injecting real pathos amidst joyful chaos, delivering a gut-punch when we’re already winded from laughing.
Overall, Inside Out triumphantly realises its potentially difficult narrative with easy humour and unexpected emotional maturity – and it’s Pixar’s best film since Toy Story 3.