The level of ambition inherent in Inside Out, Pixar’s long-awaited return to form, is apparent from its opening shot. A white screen fades in on newborn baby Riley (Kaitlyn Dias) as she first opens her eyes to take in the adoring gaze of her doting parents. Smash-zooming into Riley’s mind, a dainty, fairy-like figure wanders out of the darkness towards a single button. Pressing the switch triggers a laugh from baby Riley, much to Joy’s (Amy Poehler) satisfaction. However, this is swiftly followed by cries of anguish, and before Joy has realised what’s happening, Sadness (Phyllis Smyth) has entered the fray. We then fast-forward through Riley’s next 11 years, introducing the other core emotions of Fear (Bill Hader), Disgust (Mindy Kaling) and Anger (Lewis Black) as the infrastructure of her mind develops from its humble beginnings into a vast landscape, the emotions controlling proceedings from their towering Headquarters. Memories, rendered in the shape of coloured balls, and ‘mostly happy’ as Joy not-so-humbly reports, are collected daily, before being sent to the vast maze of long-term memory, with core memories stored in headquarters to power Riley’s ‘islands of personality’, which essentially lend the girl her sense of identity. All is going swimmingly, until Riley’s family suddenly decide to move from their home in Minnesota to San Francisco, sending Headquarters into panic mode.”
Inside Out may spend its opening 15 minutes outlining the complex mechanisms of Riley’s mind, but as far as exposition dumps go, it’s one that’s both singularly awe-inspiring, and also essential in order to keep the under-10s in the loop. Riley’s period of physical upheaval inevitably leads to an emotional one, with Joy pulling out all the stops in her attempts to maintain her girl’s sunny outlook, not least in the face of Sadness’s inexplicable and often devastating actions. When Riley breaks down in front of her new classmates, it results in both Joy and Sadness accidentally being sent to the distant recesses of Riley’s mind, leaving the hilarious, yet rudderless trio of Fear, Disgust and Anger left to ‘pretend to be Joy’. From here on out, the two seemingly opposing emotions struggle to get back to Headquarters, trawling through the avant-garde chambers of Abstract Thought, the theme park of Imagination Land, and the dungeon-like surroundings of The Subconscious. A calamitous trip to the Dream Productions studio lot provides a hilarious explanation of our most messed-up night terrors.
While the scope of events taking place in Riley’s head are grandly conceived, the real-life events maintain a visual and thematic simplicity, her ordinary experiences rendered extraordinary through the film’s celebration of the mind’s workings. By fusing an audacious, challenging concept with the hallmarks of the Pixar approach, Docter’s film marks itself out as an essential document on the importance of our mental health. As the structures of Riley’s mind become eroded by her inability to feel either Joy or Sadness, Inside Out begins to reveal itself as a clear analogy for depression, opening up the conversation on mental health to the young generation for whom variations on Riley’s troubles await. Alongside this, Inside Out’s thoughtful depiction of the nature of memory provides some of the most heart-wrenching scenes in Pixar’s catalogue. Embodied in the form of Riley’s long-forgotten imaginary friend Bing Bong (Richard Kind), Docter and co. once again flaunt their ability to bring audiences to tears in a heartbeat. This sense of nostalgia permeates much of Inside Out, evidenced in Joy’s flailing attempts to keep the good ship Riley afloat. Early on, whilst on ‘dream duty’ – monitoring Riley’s mind as she sleeps – Joy makes the call to hit eject on an offending night-terror, queueing up one of the positive memories that has shaped Riley’s early life. It’s this act of suppression that first imbues Joy with a sense of nostalgia, something we’ll find she shares with another of the core emotions…
Inside Out’s emotional depth is only matched in its wide-eyed wonderment at the workings of the human mind, with smatterings of knowing humour thrown in for good measure. The five core emotions are all impeccably cast, Poehler bringing the trademark bulldozer merriment she perfected with Parks and Recreation’s Leslie Knope, while Smith’s droll, exhausted take on Sadness casts her as the film’s MVP. An ethereal, moving score courtesy of Michael Giacchino is another highlight, complementing the beautifully rendered dreamscapes of Riley’s primary-coloured mind. With Inside Out, Pixar have done more than simply return to form, successfully carrying off their most ambitious, touching and essential film in years.