Sunday, 2 August 2015

Inside Out

Ah, Pixar. How we've missed you. For a period you were lost in the wilderness, scared and alone, the rest of us wondering where the creative spark and effortless simplicity had been mislaid. For every thrillingly original Up, there was a Disney-centric Brave. For every tear-jerking sequel (Toy Story 3) there was a shoulder-shrugging misfire (Monsters University). Don't even get me started on Cars 2.

Still, a dozen or so five-star films isn't bad going - if Kubrick would have lived beyond his 12-film canon, maybe he'd have knocked out a few duds too. (and before you ask, yes, I quite liked Eyes Wide Shut.) But when Disney bought Pixar out, the glut of aforementioned sequels seemed to announce the new parent company's arrival as a reason for dismay rather than cause for celebration. Already iffy franchises were capitalised on for no good reason (Planes, Planes: Fire & Rescue), the wellspring of originality apparently dried up now The Mouse House had taken charge.

Then along comes Inside Out, riding an absolute barrage of press coverage touting it as a return to form for the studio. If anything could topple the domination of minion-flavoured animation, it was this. But with clips on chat shows showcasing nothing more than routine kid-friendly hijinks, it felt like another shrug of the shoulders was going to be in order.

How pleasant it is to be proven wrong.

Inside Out feels like a spiritual sequel to Monsters Inc. - indeed it's directed and co-wrote by the same helmsman, Pete Docter, following the misadventures of diverse characters tasked with looking after a young girl. However where Monsters Inc. dealt with the psychology of children in a somewhat straightforward manner, Inside Out takes an altogether more ambitious route.

The aforementioned Riley (Kaitlyn Dias) is first seen as a newborn baby, our protagonist Joy (Amy Poehler) coming into being in her head shortly after her birth. Joy is an unbridled representation of pure happiness, figuring out that the solitary button on her control desk puts her in charge of Riley's emotional state (a quick press invokes laughter). However things quickly escalate when Riley cries. Cue several other physical manifestations of Riley's emotional palette appearing out of nowhere to take charge of the expanding control desk: Sadness (Phyllis Smith), Fear (Bill Hader), Anger (Lewis Black) and Disgust (Mindy Kaling).

Whizzing through the first ten years of Riley's life, we are given a whistlestop tour of significant events that come to form her 'core' memories, represented as glowing coloured marbles. These in turn create parts of her personality, represented as floating islands (Family, Friendship, Goofball - Joy's favourite). All seems to be going well until Riley's family decide to move to San Francisco on her eleventh birthday, to a house that has frankly seen better days. Sadness feels an urge to start meddling with the core memories, turning them from happy to sad with a simple touch.

Things come to a head when Riley, introducing herself to her new classmates, breaks down in tears as she recalls all the things she's missing about her hometown. It's a heartbreaking scene, offset by the chaotic goings-on in her head (Sadness is all fingers and thumbs at the control desk). In a vain attempt to keep things on an even, frown-free keel, Joy and Sadness are accidentally ejected from the control tower along with the core memories; back in the real world, Riley suddenly falls silent and sits back down in her chair. In her head, she's left with Fear, Anger and Disgust at the controls, with their adventure just beginning - but on the outside, Riley is going through what any eleven-year old goes through; the pains of growing up, her confused emotional state no doubt familiar to anyone who's ever been a kid (so, that's all of us) or raised one.

As with the best Pixar films, it deals with serious and complex issues in a way that appeals to all ages. But Inside Out has the benefit (or indeed the burden) of being able to explain emotions and states of mind in a none-more-literal way. This is a film where the concept of abstract thought is discussed in significant detail, Riley's imaginary friend Bing Bong (Richard Kind) leading Sadness and Joy into a room dedicated to its four stages: non-objective fragmentation, deconstruction, two-dimensional and non-figurative. These oblique terms are actually used by the characters to describe what's happening to them as they morph into Picasso-esque shapes, fall apart into component pieces, become flattened and finally turn into rudimentary single-colour abstractions. Visually it's fun, silly even; plenty of laughs were heard from the kids in the audience. But it's also a pretty advanced lesson in psychology. For a U-certificate film to even attempt such a move is bold. To actually pull it off is frankly taking the piss.

No mental stone is left unturned: Dream Productions is a giant studio lot dedicated to creating Riley's nightly thought patterns; older, unnecessary memories 'fade away' and as such are vacuumed up by a two-man clean-up team. Even those annoying songs that pop up in your head for no reason are, in fact, reasoned - sent up to the control tower by the clean-up team to plague your consciousness, purely for the hell of it.

But for all its clever humour and multicoloured vibrancy, Inside Out is a film that thrives on dark, upsetting themes. Riley's journey takes in losing friends, dishonesty, disillusionment and regret. Even in her mind we witness the death of a major character, played out with such selfless poignancy that only the coldest of hearts won't be moved. Docter knows the big themes can be tackled without having to resort to cloying sentimentality, yet he provides all the major players (both inside and out) with such warmth and depth that the emotional beats seem almost effortless.

It's easy to get swept up in a film that had me crying about halfway in, the waterworks being turned off and on again repeatedly until the end credits. But Inside Out is what a Pixar film should be - funny, silly, yet layered and complex. Not unlike Riley, really. Not unlike any of us.

Ah, Pixar. How we've missed you.

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