If there was any concern among the general public that Pixar was losing its magic, with its unprecedented run of successful movies recently broken by a couple of dud sequels, Inside Out represents the perfect comeback.
Far from playing it safe with a stockholder sequel, something they were harshly accused of doing with Cars 2 and Monsters University, Pixar’s latest release is their most bold, inventive and thematically ambitious movie since Up, exploring what it feels like to be a girl on the brink of adolescence through the prism of duelling emotions that reside within her mind.
The basic story seems fairly ordinary. Riley (Dias) is a happy, hockey-loving midwestern girl whose world is torn apart when her parents suddenly decide to up-sticks and relocate to San Francisco.
It’s here where writer-director Pete Docter’s audacious concept begins to take hold as we delve deep into Riley’s mind where her core emotions – Anger (Lewis Black), Disgust (Kaling), Fear (Bill Hader), Sadness (Smith) and their preppy leader Joy (Poehler) – try to guide her through the challenge of starting life anew.
But when Joy and Sadness are inadvertently sucked into the outer reaches of Riley’s mind, they face a frantic race against time to make it back to headquarters before the remaining emotions cause irreparable damage to Riley’s personality.
Visually, the movie is a feast for the eyes. Docter and co-director Ronnie del Carmen have envisioned the architecture of Riley’s mind as a hallucinogenic theme park where the pillars that form her personality, such as family, hockey and friendship, are represented as floating islands that have their own unique style just like the areas of Disneyland.
From a Dream Production zone that resembles an old-school Hollywood studio to the land of Abstract Thought that turns characters into cubist paintings, this world is a chocolate box of ingenious ideas, one Docter and del Carmen have a lot of fun exploring even as they keep one eye focused on the story by juxtaposing the colourful cerebral-scape with the gloomy San Francisco of Riley’s reality.
It’s this tug-of-war between happiness and sadness that is the main driving force behind the story. There are plenty of throwaway gags to keep both kids and their parents laughing throughout as the script is peppered with wry observations about how the mind works – one recurring joke sees mischievous mind workers recall the memory of a catchy advertising jingle just to annoy the emotions back at HQ.
But much like Joy and Sadness’s endless to-ing and fro-ing over how best to restore Riley’s mood, these funny scenes are almost always followed by moments of deep pathos. One particular scene is rather poignant as Riley’s happy memories become tinged with the sadness of nostalgia, as she grows increasingly homesick for her former life.
It’s moments such as this that are the film’s most powerful and affecting. Examining how the mind operates during our formative years is a tricky thing to dramatise, yet Docter and del Carmen never shirk the challenge, speaking openly about the pain of growing up, and the inevitable change that brings, whilst also telling kids that it’s okay to feel sad about it. And that’s far more impressive than anything you’ll find in their stunning imagery.
Inside Out might not be Pixar’s best work – the latter half feels repetitive as it struggles to maintain momentum, but it is a striking return to form for the studio. Endlessly imaginative, visually astounding and delivered with a hefty dose of wit and pathos, Inside Out captures what it’s like to grow-up and executes it beautifully.
Runtime: 94 mins; Genre: Animation; Released: 24 July 2015
Directors: Pete Docter, Ronnie del Carmen; Screenwriters: Meg LeFauve, Josh Cooley, Peter Docter;
Cast: Amy Poehler, Phyllis Smith, Kaitlyn Dias, Mindy Kaling
Click here to watch the trailer for Inside Out