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Ride the rollercoaster of emotion in Pixar's Inside Out

The output of Disney Pixar, the most successful Hollywood studio, has been marked by a leveling appeal to both children and adults (the latter more than the former in some cases) and an ingenuity that produces entertaining movies that run like clockwork. Yet such skill also has the inverse effect of producing great short films in features otherwise segmented by their need to please and ‘get on with the program’. Inside Out, then, about an 11-year-old girl working herself in as much as working herself out, is easily the best overall film by Pixar and probably the most Pixar-ey Pixar film to date, not so much addressing the modern criticism lobbed at the studio in recent times – that it deals solely in confectionary coloured emotions sealed in vanilla packaging – as copping to it. Inside Out gives audiences the keys to the kingdom, so to speak, a vision of how kids work and how the studio itself works.

Riley Anderson is a young girl who becomes stuck in pre-pubescent development hell when her parents decide to move to San Francisco. The picture tracks the emotions in Riley’s head: Anger (Lewis Black), Fear (Bill Hader), Disgust (Mindy Kaling), Joy (Amy Poehler) and Sadness (Phyllis Smith), and the animated consciousness they inhabit – a control room wherein they view and react to/for Riley, collect memories and feed them back for storage in the collective subconscious, monitoring different parts of the mind activated as segregated ‘theme park’ islands. Riley and her family endure their first real fracture as a one-child family, yet they are very much avatars for more detailed and sketched out internal geographies. And this quality of linkage is trademark Pixar, the fantastical moving into the realm of the real, each envisioning the other as possible – the floating balloon house in Up, a nuclear family reactivated by super powers in The Incredibles, the toys on the other end of Toy Story, a rat and human chef working in tandem in Ratatouille – the latter two and perhaps Miyazaki’s Spirited Away being the closest of the animation brass to this picture.

The human story here is not so much generic as staple. Riley falls out – coming into a new school and struggling in her new hockey team. Soon, sadness (nostalgia) creeps into her memories, envisioned as marbles that go from yellow – Joy – to blue – Sadness. Her core memories are soon sucked up into her subconscious and Joy and Sadness are left to head into the pristinely animated abyss to retrieve them.

The opposite-ends road trip narrative is gift wrapped in Riley’s running away, and it finds Joy’s peppy affect (wonderfully vocalized by Poehler) finding its boundaries against Sadness’s droll humor and terseness. They assume each other simply yet rewardingly. Pete Docter – a revered Pixar movie imagineer (director of Up, otherwise the studio’s most ambitious film) – and his team build a world out from the spark of childhood emotional growth. After finding the lost core memories, the two must make it back to the other emotions in the control room, Joy having to keep the marbles away from Sadness who blues everything she touches. They traverse through the memory hall (where memories are kept or thrown away), imagination land and come up against oblivion – most achingly realized in an imaginary friend character whom, much like the toys of Toy Story, comes to the realization that Riley needs to grow past him. As Riley detaches from the one-way conveyor belt of childhood consciousness (led mostly by Joy), so do Docter and co., bucking the traditional locked-in animation style – characters become flat figures as they travel through parts of the brain that comprehend shapes to catch a ‘train of thought’ back to headquarters and then build a giant ladder out of Riley’s cloned fantastical boy-crushes.

The formal daring (by Pixar standards) is only muted by un-inspired and dull 3D. However this is an incredibly shrewd, wonderfully fun character study, finding and figuring through complex emotional processes underpinning even the simplest vision of suburban white middle class familial idle and one-child strife. Even as the film retains the gloss of marketing there is an ineluctable purity to the characters and their learned cognizance – that wealth is not in one emotion’s feeling over others but their combination and balance, one’s respect for their uses and limitations.

While imitations of greater scope are frustrating – going into the heads of the mother and father and others and supposing the same uniformly minded set-up (even as we see Riley’s mind grow) – Inside Out is, at its best, outstanding as an individual vehicle for its plucky protagonist, growing to a fuller understanding of the world, and of herself in it. Expanding upon previous Pixar efforts by exploring the essence of childhood being – escapism as first step. 

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