With Inside Out, Pixar animation studios have returned to form in breathtaking fashion, yet again breaking new ground for what can be achieved in both animation and movies aimed at young audiences. Like many of the studio’s most famous movies, it is about the subject of growing up. Whereas movies like Up or Monsters Inc. (director Pete Docter’s two previous features) explore this theme from the perspective of an adult or parent figure, here it is told from the perspective of the inner emotions of a girl too young to realise that she’s growing out of her childhood. It’s a film very much about looking back on childhood whilst still in the midst of it, unaware that it is all about to end. Like many of the studio’s previous films, this is a movie that will delight children, but contains an emotional complexity whilst addressing these themes of growing up that will reduce older viewers in to tears. It will take a heart of stone to remain unmoved by this movie.
One of the many remarkable things about the movie is how it opens with a ton of exposition explaining the mythology of the film and it all makes sense – few movies built upon mythology ground themselves in human emotion, something that makes every little detail easy to grasp, yet somehow still thrilling and endlessly inventive. Here, we are inside the mind of 11 year old Reilly. From birth, emotions started appearing at the “headquarters” offices in her mind, holding the reigns of a giant control board that channels their emotion into Reilly. First came Joy, voiced by the perennially wonderful Amy Poehler, who was soon joined by the sudden appearances of Sadness, Disgust, Fear and Anger, all collaborating to help convey Reilly’s emotions. Every day they strive to create “core memories” that manifest themselves as giant pinballs (trust me, it makes sense in context) which help create “memory islands” in the outer reaches of Reilly’s brain – important memories that cannot be removed as they form an important part of who she is.
Reilly’s life is about to get turned (wait for it) inside out by the sudden revelation her family are moving from Minnesota to San Francisco; Sadness starts taking over the control panel and distorting all of Reilly’s memories so they appear sad, which Joy fails to change. After trying to stop these corrupted core memories from making their way into the memory bank, both she and Sadness end up getting sucked out of headquarters into the far reaches of Reilly’s mind and have to make their way back. Meanwhile, Fear, Disgust and Anger are left in control and are having a difficult time trying to mimic Joy, leading Reilly’s life into a constant downward spiral due to her limited emotional range.
Inside Out succeeds on walking a tricky emotional tightrope, balancing some of the most complex emotions Pixar have addressed with a high joke ratio that helps this stake a claim as the studio’s funniest film. Making a movie that dares to explore the mind of a pre-teen girl, a group who are often condescended to in pop-culture, is a mean feat of it’s own; to make full sense of their emotional intangibilities whilst ensuring the film remains a constant laugh riot is a profound achievement. Structurally, the movie is ingeniously designed so Joy and Sadness travel through every single part of the mind that Docter can mine laughs from; a belly-laugh worthy highlight are the construction workers in Reilly’s mind who repeatedly send up a chewing gum jingle (this year’s shoo-in for Best Original Song at the Oscars) to play up the notion of a song getting stuck in your head.
Then, we go everywhere from imagination land, the “dream theatre” movie studios, deja vu, abstract thought (which is the most batshit surreal sequence Pixar have ever done), deja vu, long-term memory and deja vu. All the while, the movie manages to generate one-liners all over the place, from Anger’s control room frustrations at broccoli flavoured Pizza to an ingenious Chinatown reference down in Imagination land. Outside of the mind, Reilly’s life is going through an emotionally traumatic time and the movie never uses it’s humour to undermine that- Pixar are one of the few studios who can combine contrasting emotions to such winning effect.
Now, for the emotional talk. What is thrilling about the movie is how it takes characters who are very one-note by definition, as they are all named after the one emotion they convey, and somehow manages to give them full character development whilst retaining that same core feeling. Elsewhere, emotions run far deeper. In Reilly’s mind we are introduced to a character called Bing Bong (Richard Kind), Reilly’s imaginary friend as a toddler who she has long forgotten about. Initially introduced as an annoying sidekick, the character becomes an increasingly tragic figure as we learn how devoted he is to somebody who hasn’t just grown out of imagining him, but has long forgotten he’s existed.
The movie has a simple message for it’s young audiences: don’t be afraid to talk about your emotions, even if you do have to sacrifice some of them if it means growing up. This isn’t a message very young children won’t respond to, although adults will have a profound emotional reaction to it. As kid-friendly as most of the movie is, this is Pixar’s most mature movie to date; it didn’t leave me in tears like the Toy Story sequels or Up, but that’s because this doesn’t trigger such an immediate emotional reaction (although several people in my screening were wiping away tears). For me, the emotions played out on multiple levels in a way that leaves you thinking about the movie constantly after watching it, interpreting scenes in different ways even if the emotions up at headquarters appear to be dictating what is being felt at any given moment.
A mark of a true masterpiece is a film that you are replaying in your head repeatedly after watching, liking it even more the more you think about it. Inside Out is one of those films – it will likely become a “core memory” for anybody who sees it. It is the best animated film of the decade so far and has rescued Pixar Studios from a self-imposed slump, revitalising them as the most forward-thinking animation studio in the industry.