June 21, 2015 Leave a comment
With Joy (Amy Poehler) at the controls, and Sadness (Bill Hader), Fear (Phyllis Smith), Disgust (Mindy Kaling) and Anger (Lewis Black) in check, Riley (Kaitlyn Dias) is loving life in Minnesota. That is, until a move to San Francisco jeopradises everything, from her happy family life to her cherished friendships and beloved hobbies. To make matters worse, Joy and Sadness become stranded in Riley’s labyrinthine long-term memory, separated from Headquarters by The Void, a bona fide memory dump, leaving Fear, Disgust and Anger at the helm for her first day at a scary new school. Despite their best intentions, none of the three are able to restore the status quo and re-establish a healthy balance of emotion — and as Riley isolates herself from those around her she risks no longer being able to feel anything at all.
After a string of sub-par sequels, punctuated by the beleaguered Brave, Pixar are finally back on form with their most original premise in years. Inside Out, like Toy Story or Monsters Inc, is one of those concepts that is so ingenious and intuitive that it’s incredible that nobody ever thought of it before. Aptly, there is such joy to be had with the visual gags and observational humour — Riley’s unconscious contains a literal Train Of Thought, a long-forgotten imaginary friend named Bing Bong (Richard Kind), and a studio lot where dreams are produced, scored with harp music and shot through a reality filter — that you forget you were ever concerned. Characteristically, these jokes work on a number of levels, from pratfalls and slapstick to subtler riffs on psychology. One scene sees Joy and Sadness infiltrate Riley’s subconscious, a prison containing all of Riley’s worst fears — to save Bing Bong, who must escape from a squeaky balloon cage without waking Jangles the Clown (Josh Cooley).
Furthermore, Inside Out is easily the studios most emotionally intelligent film since Toy Story 3. Joy and company may be by their very nature caricatures, oversimplified and one-note personifications of base emotions, but the human characters they comprise are unusually complex, even by Pixar’s typically high standards. Riley’s relationships are deep and dynamic, her emotions authentic and convoluted, and as a result of HQ battling it out behind the scenes you get a real and unrivalled insight into her thought processes and emotional responses. The stand-out sequence (apart from a credits montage that ends the film on an unparalleled high) has been heavily trailed, showing a family quarrel over dinner from the perspectives of Riley and her parents’ emotional centres. The writing is very perceptive, and it fleshes out the supporting cast beautifully, opening the film out in a way that only Pixar would really be capable of. The filmmakers could arguably have done more with this narrative device; as interesting a case study as Riley is she inevitably limits the scope of the film and prevents a novel narrative device from ever reaching its full potential.
For as strong as it is, particularly in comparison to the studio’s last few films, Inside Out isn’t quite top-tier Pixar. The characters are vividly drawn, the jokes are perfectly polished, and the animation is beautifully done, but the film is hamstrung by a rather less inspiring plot. The various aspects of Riley’s personality are represented by five floating islands in her mindscape: Family Land, Friendship Land, Hockey Island, Honesty Island, and Goofball Island, each of which is linked to Headquarters by a narrow platform. In their quest to return to the control room, Joy and Sadness visit each of these islands in turn, only for Riley’s real-world adventures to compromise each section’s structural integrity and delay their journey back — inevitably allowing them to put aside their differences and learn to work together. Given how imaginative the set-up is, and how well it works when opened out beyond Riley’s worldview, it’s a shame that Pixar default to the overused buddy-comedy formula and devote so much screen-time to such a predictable subplot.
Emotionally, and thematically, Inside Out is almost there — the ending is strong, if a little obvious, and there is plenty to keep your own driving emotions busy throughout. It’s just a shame that when the relationships between characters are so compelling Pixar chooses instead to dwell on the oversimplified conversations taking place within one little girl’s head. If only directors Pete Docter and Ronnie del Carmen had spent less time on Exposition Island, and preferably just stayed in Imagination Land.