(Pixar, directed by Pete Docter, 2015)
In many ways I’m just an overgrown child (this’ll become evident if we ever have cause to discuss trebuchets or jousting). Although I do watch and read a lot of serious things, I also have a soft spot for well-made films aimed at kids, and a new film has just been added to my personal Hall of Fame: the magical Inside Out. Prepare for a lot of pictures.
Pixar have always been especially good at making animated films which appeal to children with their colourful exuberance but which contain more sobering, profound levels of meaning to engage with adult viewers. Just off the top of my head there’s Brave, Up, Toy Story 3, Monsters Inc. and Wall-E (I’m not sure how far the argument holds with Tangled or Frozen, though I love those too). Now, several people have recommended Inside Out to me – all of whom are grown-ups and only one of whom actually has a child, so I’ll leave it to you to draw your own conclusions from that. In fact, I suspect more than one of you may already have seen it and I’m probably preaching to the converted, but if you haven’t yet been tempted, let me add my encouragement.
Inside Out takes place inside the head of eleven-year-old Riley, who is moving with her parents from Minnesota to Los Angeles. At the nerve centre of her mind, at Headquarters, we meet five Emotions who are in charge of governing Riley’s reactions to the world around her and who have, over the last eleven years, developed the ability to work as a finely-tuned team.
Effervescent Joy is at its head, governing the dashboard most of the time; then there’s her close counterpart, drooping and blue Sadness; sassy and opinionated Disgust; short-tempered Anger; and gangly, anxiety-ridden Fear. Together, they’ve worked hard to overcome all that life has thrown at Riley and, if they say so themselves, they’re rather proud of their achievements. Beyond the windows of their Headquarters, they’ve watched the growth and consolidation of her Personality Islands, which embody Riley’s key qualities: family, friendship, goofball humour, hockey talent and honesty.
But trouble is on the horizon. Sadness has developed a distressing tendency to wander round touching things she shouldn’t, inadvertently affecting Riley’s emotions. On Riley’s first day at her new school, trouble comes to a head when the team, already strained to breaking point by the effort of tackling these new situations, faces the unthinkable. In a freak accident involving a precious cache of Riley’s core memories, Joy and Sadness are sucked out into the endless passages of Long-Term Memory, leaving their three colleagues at the helm. Shocked and terrified by their new responsibilities, Anger, Fear and Disgust must try as hard as they can to steer Riley through her new life until Joy and Sadness can find their way back to Headquarters.
But that isn’t as easy as it sounds. As Riley faces her disorientating new life without Joy’s familiar hand on the reins, things start to fragment. Soon Joy and Sadness find their planned route cut off and, plucking up courage, they must seek unfamiliar ways through Riley’s mind in order to get home. On their journey they will encounter long-lost old friends, find delight in the Imagination Zone and meet the workers who busy themselves keeping Riley’s memory tidy and clearing out old memories. However, these warrens also contain dangers. Before Joy and Sadness can return home, they must face the terrors of Abstract Thought, taste the dark fears of the Subconscious and, most importantly, strive to avoid the deep pits of oblivion of the Memory Dump.
The film is so wonderful because it offers an engaging adventure story which also serves as a thoughtful introduction to the physiology of the brain. The animation, as I’ve come to expect from Pixar, is superb and the fictional world springs to life in a way that would have been much more difficult with the 2D drawn animation of my childhood. Yet technical skill would mean nothing without a heart, and Inside Out has poignancy to spare. Much of it is offered by Riley’s childhood imaginary friend Bing Bong, an adorable creature who is part elephant and part dolphin, with a lovely furry cat’s tail. He still bustles around the corridors of Long Term Memory waiting to be called back into action and dreaming of the day he and Riley will finally take their promised trip to the Moon in his song-powered rocket.
But there’s more: the way that Joy and her colleagues regard Riley, and cherish their favourite memories, surely has much in common with the way that parents feel about their children. If you’re a parent watching Inside Out, it must remind you of the bittersweet way in which your children grow up, change and develop new skills, while outgrowing the things you once loved to do with them. But maybe the film will also give parents a way to explain this to children, as well as offering a way for children to understand and articulate their own complex feelings. I’ve read on the internet that some child psychologists are already making use of the film as a way to help their young patients.
So yes, what everyone told me was right. This is a lovely film and you absolutely don’t need a child on hand to have an excuse to watch it. It manages to be exciting and thought-provoking, zany and moving, and it’s another brilliant piece of original filmmaking from Pixar. Highly recommended for those who don’t want to give up on their own inner child just yet, but have a box of tissues handy just in case. And do be aware that, for a day or so afterwards, you’ll find yourself assessing all your reactions as if there really are five small people controlling your emotions…