Pixar's latest seems like a routine animated romp, but it may well be the most important film of the summer
At its core, Inside Out is really nothing new: the Typical Pixar tale of a mismatched pair forced to bond on an adventure of inner and outer discovery, with a supporting cast of literally colourful characters. But Inside Out may also be the first Pixar film where the plot itself, appealing though it is, generally takes a back seat. By nature, the popular animated film company's features have been a mixture of postmodern neuroticisms and coming-of-age stories, and while Inside Out is no different in that regard, it offers far more than you might expect. Think of it as a story of character development inside and outside the human head packed with thrills, laughs and plenty of food for the brain.
It's not so much brain food as brain fuel that is the central focus of Inside Out. Joy (Amy Poehler), Sadness (Phyllis Smith), Disgust (Mindy Kaling), Fear (Bill Hader) and Anger (Lewis Black) are the five living, breathing parts of the emotional spectrum inside the mental "headquarters" of the soon-to-be-teenage Riley Anderson (Kaitlyn Dias). Imagine a variation on Beano's Numskulls comic except with more colour, vibrance and depth: these headquarters house Riley's core memories, which in turn constitute five “islands of personality”, including one for friendship and one for family.
When Riley is forced to relocate from her happy home in Minnesota to San Francisco after her father gets a new job, Joy begins working overtime to ensure that Riley remains happy, with neither she nor the other emotions understanding the relevance of Sadness. That lack of understanding will get both Joy and Sadness into trouble and force them to go on a Pixarian adventure of discovery throughout the entire body: an exciting, eye-opening and even horrifying quest.
For Joy, while well-intentioned, is not all that far removed from a self-help Manic Pixie Dream Girl. She primarily believes that it is solely her responsibility to keep Riley happy while unfortunately forgetting, or even ignoring, that part that conflicting emotions play in building and sustaining character.
Appealingly simple though it would seem to separate one's primary emotions into five separate colours and one's personalities into a series of islands, it would also be reductive to think it can always remain this way. You cannot pigeon hole a human being into a solitary emotion, or even five: we are far more mixed up and uncertain of ourselves, as the film eventually proves.
It is painful to learn that in striving to make others happy, we forget that what we perceive will make them happy is not what will actually make them happy. Pete Docter has grasped this, in the form of a children's adventure, and skilfully dramatised it without losing sight of the plot-driven excitement and humour that Pixar are so good at.
Riley's "brain people" are in for a rude awakening as their host grows up fast and they are forced into circumstances beyond their control. Joy learns that her lack of pragmatism is a stumbling block, and arguably more troubling than Sadness's desire for attention. Believing that anything is possible is one thing, not being realistic is another, and Joy's inability to listen is more detrimental to her, headquarters and Riley than she thinks. Similarly, the other emotions are cursed by pigeon holed narrow mindedness: Disgust is the prototypical deadpan snarker, Fear is your average pre-punch George McFly, and Anger is the Biff, he who is only too keen to lay physical and emotional biffs through Riley's psyche until he learns the error of his ways.
(Spoiler alert.) The "death" of an exceptionally colourful imaginary friend makes Inside Out richly cathartic. His "sacrifice", the epitome of letting go childish playthings and opening one's eyes to the complications of teenage years, seems to contradict the film's message in the closing credits, that we should stay children forever. That is, until you view it from Joy's perspective: while she will continue her mission of making Riley happy, she will now do so with a newly sober outlook that retains the memory of childhood lost without using it as a crutch. Everyone is shaped by their upbringing: the challenge is to reflect on it for the better and not dwell on it for the worse, as the elderly protagonist of Docter's Up finds when he eventually lets go of the past and embraces his new found future.
The grim resonance of Inside Out arises from the initial idea itself, the horror that emotions can not only be minimised but reduced to a series of systematic technicalities as opposed to the human spontaneities they ought to be. It is a frightening reflection of societal planning, how often luck and adventure appear to be forgotten because we like to believe we're in control. Everything in Inside Out is symbolic, and everything has a message, which may well make it the most thematically ambitious movie that Pixar have ever produced. Just as well, then, that it's a thoroughly enjoyable one too.