Monday, August 31, 2015
Two things that Pixar have always done very well: imaginatively mapping the infrastructure of their settings (the factory in ‘Monsters, Inc’, the villain’s island lair in ‘The Incredibles’, the town of Radiator Springs in ‘Cars’); and depicting isolation, loneliness or the inability to fit in (early scenes in ‘Wall-E’ and ‘Up’ are perfect exemplars, ditto Remy’s difficulty relating to his family in ‘Ratatouille’). At the opposite end of the scale, there’s always been an intuitive understanding of the crowd-pleasing dynamic of mismatched protagonists working as a team for the greater good (the ‘Toy Story’ trilogy, ‘The Incredibles’).
‘Inside Out’ harnesses all of these elements to tell a story where the stakes are ostensibly lower (no-one’s threatened with immolation at the hands of a Sid-like sociopath or plunged into an inferno as per ‘Toy Story’ or ‘Toy Story 3’, nor is an entire city threatened with destruction a la ‘The Incredibles’) and yet the emotional payoff is infinitely higher. ‘Inside Out’, moreover, is a film without a villain. Or rather, a film without a corporeal villain.
The protagonist is 11-year-old Riley (voiced by Kaitlyn Dias), a good-natured and cheerful lass who enjoys hockey and has some great friends and who is the light of her parent’s life. Until, that is, they up sticks from the great outdoors of Minnesota to the cramped city streets of San Francisco and an apartment that the film does its best to make look squalid but actually seems a decent piece of real estate. That Riley faces this disappointment head on and tries as hard as possible to remain optimistic is due to Joy (Amy Poehler), one of five emotions who engineer Riley’s wellbeing from a futuristic control room in her mind.
Joy’s colleagues in this enterprise are Sadness (Phyllis Smith), Fear (Bill Hader), Anger (Lewis Black) and Disgust (Mindy Kaling), all of whom are permitted by control-freak Joy to do only what is needed to provide Riley with protection (Fear) or motivation (Anger). This leaves Disgust and Sadness as the most under-utilised of the team, and while Disgust affects a “yeah, whatever” kind of attitude, Sadness remains perplexed as to why certain of Riley’s memories – particularly core memories – are entirely colour-coded as products of Joy’s intervention when, given their context, they should have been tinged with an undercurrent of sadness.
How the infrastructure of memories works, with Riley’s subconscious as a series of theme parks, is something I’ll leave you to discover for yourself – the pure inventiveness of how the different aspects of her personality function is the film’s chief pleasure; suffice it to say, for the purpose of this review, that memories and core memories glow with the colour of the emotion that created them; most glow golden after Joy; and anything Sadness touches is blue. The dramatic arc of the narrative begins when Sadness persists, against Joy’s orders, in handling ostensibly happy memories. Events come to a head and Joy and Sadness find themselves ejected from the control room with Riley’s core memories, each of which powers one of the theme parks. Joy’s mission is to return these memories and make Riley emotionally functional again while keeping them from Sadness’s clutches.
Meanwhile, with the polar opposites of Joy and Sadness absent – i.e. the two emotions responsible for the majority of Riley’s emotional register – the control room is left to the dubious and unfocussed stewardship of Anger, Fear and Disgust. As a result, Riley drifts into ennui. The theme parks shut down and, as Riley’s retraction from the world around her continues, are threatened with destruction. I said earlier that the film doesn’t have a corporeal villain. It has an incorporeal one; a shadow. Other Pixar films may have dealt with loneliness and, to a certain degree, dysfunctionalism. ‘Inside Out’ is a Pixar film that deals with depression.
It does so in a way that doesn’t step outside its ostensibly-for-children animated aesthetic, but is nonetheless effective and sometimes slyly so. Sadness’s response to any situation she can’t get a handle on is to lie down, bury her face and protest that she’s too tired (“you’ll have to drag me,” she tells Joy at one point). There’s a pit-of-forgotten-memories setpiece which is thematically and visually similar to the levels-of-memory bit in ‘The Book of Life’, involving an heroic act by Riley’s already-forgotten imaginary friend from early infanthood that is the most genuine poignant moment director Pete Docter conjures.
Joy and Sadness’s journey back – a sort of day-glo ‘Odyssey’ – is juxtaposed with Riley’s transformation from outgoing prepubescent to sullen, rebellious teenager-in-waiting. Again, Docter and his creative team chart the character arc realistically but sympathetically. Riley’s behaviour is understandable and the effects of her withdrawal accrete slowly so that by the time she comes to a decision (Anger at work in the control room) that threatens the stability of the family unit, the viewer still feels sympathy.
‘Inside Out’ is a film of lush visuals (it’s Pixar: what else would you expect?) and a wealth of details, from playful humour (the literalisation of a train of thought) to unexpected in-jokes (“forget it, Jake, it’s Cloudtown”). But most of all it’s a film of grace notes and wonderfully observed details. I particularly liked the depiction of Riley’s emotions as being of different height and bounding around all over the control room, whereas those of her parents are all the same height, formally seated around a control panel and working in equilibrium; as a comment on the difference between a child’s emotional make-up and a functional adult’s, it’s spot on and incorporated into the film’s aesthetic in a way that doesn’t call itself to the audience’s attention.
In fact, Docter is very good at trusting to his audience to assimilate the material and not rely on laborious exposition (a whirlwind pre-credits tour of how memories and emotions work sets the scene incredibly swiftly for the amount of detail it imparts). Docter was behind ‘Monsters, Inc’ and ‘Up’, the latter still one of my absolute favourite Pixars, and what he delivers here stands with the studio’s best. After a fairly dispiriting run from ‘Cars 2’ to ‘Monsters University’, ‘Inside Out’ sees Pixar back on form.