US (2015) Dir. Pete Docter & Ronnie Del Carmen
While Disney is busy churning out twee sing-a-long fantasies about princesses and other facile female characters, their adopted stepchild Pixar continues to take a more cerebral and down to earth approach with their animated features, offering escapism with more challenging edge to it.
Their latest outing Inside Out uses quirky fantasy elements to explore the serious side of life, in this instance the problem of social anxiety within a pre-pubescent child, inspired by the experiences of director Pete Docter and his daughter. The vessel for this exploration is eleven year-old Riley Andersen (Kaitlyn Dias) who enjoys a happy life with her parents (Diane Lane and Kyle MacLachlan) until they move from Minnesota to San Francisco.
Riley finds it a little hard to adjust to her new surroundings, her emotions going haywire. As it happens we can see those emotions as colourful characters inside Riley’s head, each one ready to step in when the situations arises to guide Riley through it – Joy (Amy Poehler), along with Sadness (Phyllis Smith), Fear (Bill Hader), Anger (Lewis Black), and Disgust (Mindy Kaling).
A concept ripe for comedy and maybe even satire – if I recall there was a US TV comedy in the 90’s called Herman’s Head with a similar premise – Docter’s screenplay naturally takes full advantage of this yet handles the core issues with sensitivity, refusing to patronise the adult audience while keeping it fun and adventurous for the younger viewers.
The central crisis point of the story revolves around the inner workings of Riley’s head – or headquarters – where the emotions man a control panel ready to activate an appropriate mood response to a situation. Riley’s memories are stored in tiny balls which are kept on racks with core memories treated like crown jewels. Unfortunately whenever Sadness touches a memory it becomes a sad one.
During a scuffle both Joy and Sadness are sucked out of headquarters via a memory tube and dumped in the main storage area, a huge complex world of discarded memories and feelings. With Anger, Disgust and Fear left alone to control Riley’s emotions things begin to look bleak for the youngster while her parents struggle to cope with her newly aggressive and depressive demeanour.
The inside of Riley’s head is a wonderfully inventive realisation of the cerebral and mental concepts we are unable to place as a tangible entity largely for the benefit of the kids watching but it makes perfect sense for us oldies too. Outside of HQ is a veritable theme park made up of “Personality Islands” which are kept alive by Riley’s actions – honesty, family bonds, fun, good times, etc – but begin to crumble when she goes off the rails.
It becomes a fantastic world for Joy and Sadness to traverse in their quest to return to HQ but even the inside of the head is bound by rules and protocol which the lost duo come up against. Riley may be the one who suffers in this scenario but the real journey is the one undertaken by Joy and Sadness in a clever set up of two opposite entities working together for the good of the whole.
At the risk of being reductive or possibly naïve, the message – or at least one – imparted here is that while we need to have positive and negative feelings in our lives to make us fully rounded and emotionally stable beings. With regard to the social anxiety issue it is saying that it is okay to be scared, nervous and revel in the memories of the past but new memories need to be made and if you can find one common link – for Riley it is ice hockey – you have a head start.
Of course it is not just Riley’s emotions we get to see which is where the adults will get a kick from this concept. Riley’s father’s emotions are portrayed as typical male, teeming with testosterone and ego but lacking in empathy and tact; her mother is a tidy and proper line up of sensitive but jaded housewives daydreaming about that ideal fantasy escape. I won’t spoil what goes on inside a boy’s head that Riley meets but it is spot on and very funny.
The comic value is purely in the hands of the emotions with Riley’s life outside her head being the “straight man” in this dichotomy. Anger, a stubby red chap, is the funniest one but all the characters are well observed if a little blatant. Joy is ebullient and upbeat, surrounded by a glowing aura, Sadness is a squat blue mousey woman with glasses, Disgust is green, chic and sarcastic, and Fear is a spindly manic chap.
Regardless of which head we look in, this colour coding is universal while the physical forms might alter slightly depending on the gender of the head – in the father’s head they all look like Anger, complete with moustaches. Riley’s imaginary friend Bing Bong is essentially a pink elephant with composite parts from other animals because Riley’s three year-old imagination doesn’t understand the rules.
Visually this is another vibrant colourful and eye pleasing treat from Pixar which stays within the boundaries of the old cartoon remit rather than trying too hard to be a perfect photorealistic presentation to make our jaws drop. That isn’t to say the detail and depth of the “real world” isn’t remarkable as it is, while the humans retain that slight exaggerated caricature aspect of their designs.
What makes Inside Out work is how it tells its story in an entertaining and engaging fashion while making us think without being didactic or unnecessarily sentimental. Its charm is immediately evident in its playfulness, inventiveness and empathetic approach to its subject matter, successfully maintaining a fine balance in being accessible to audiences of all ages.