It occurs to me that Pete Docter doesn’t make animated kids’ movies. He makes family films in the purest sense of the word, addressing children and parents on different levels and then uniting them with a common emotional experience. Consider the bit in Inside Out when our heroes trek through their host mind’s abstract-thought processing unit. The little girl next to me giggled at the cuddly creatures suddenly flattening, like in a Chuck Jones cartoon. I laughed at the realisation that our consciousness does, in fact, morph complex, ethereal notions into two-dimensional vagaries. By the time the credits rolled, we were both raving about the same scene.
Okay, we were raving about the whole of Inside Out, which boasts one of the most daring concepts of any Pixar production I’ve seen. I use the word “daring” not because the film’s visual scope compare in any way to that in Finding Nemo (2003) or Wall-E (2008) but to highlight the storytelling challenges inherent to Docter’s trippy premise. I mean, it’s one thing to anthropomorphise basic emotions for a cartoon short or thirty-page picture book, another to have them operate a twelve-year-old girl (Kaitlyn Dias) during her move to San Francisco and deconstruct the inner trauma of puberty in the context of a summer blockbuster.
Just the 94-minute runtime presents a unique hurdle. After all, the five emotions guiding Riley are by definition one-note characters, leaving little wiggle room for growth or catharsis. Inside Out bypasses the issue by showcasing oft forgotten aspects of each feeling. For example, Anger (Lewis Black) turns out a worthy companion because “he cares a lot about things being fair”, while Disgust (Mindy Kaling) maintains a high standard for herself as well as others. Even Fear (Bill Hader) reveals new dimensions, extending his function to general alertness.
However, the true stars of Inside Out are Joy (Amy Poehler) and Sadness (Phyllis Smith), who must find their way back to headquarters after falling down the memory shoot. Their adventure serves, of course, as mere pretext for a series of gags in which Docter and co-director Ronaldo Del Carmen give form to such metaphysical notions as the train of thought, Imagination Land, and the plight of that random commercial jingle constantly popping up in your noggin. My favourite bit involves our heroines accidentally toppling a box of opinions into a barrel of facts: “They all look the same!”
Meanwhile, stripped of two core emotions, Riley exhibits all the signs of a child in crisis, reacting to every situation with either fear, anger, or disgust. Some will begrudge Docter for keeping the stakes so low, but I think they’re missing the point. Inside Out isn’t about a girl adapting to the big city. It pertains to the process of psychological growth. Consider how much drama is generated just from Bing Bong (Richard Kind) presenting himself as an imaginary friend. Having all moved past this phase in our lives, we can’t help but fear the worst for the doughy pink elephant. Rest assured: his fate is brilliantly handled.
You see, for all its cuddly critters and colourful backgrounds, Inside Out proves merciless in its analysis of human behaviour, holding as its thesis not only that we are ruled by emotions but that our modern obsession with cheerfulness is psychologically crippling. “I need you to be your happy self” confides Riley’s mom (Diane Lane), forgetting that her daughter’s nascent coping mechanisms take precedence over her own. For a twelve-year-old, joy can prove a fundamentally narcissistic experience, and her embodiment behaves accordingly, ignoring everyone’s counsel and hogging the control panel. Sadness is the means by which we develop empathy and elicit understanding. After all, she’s read the manual…
I don’t know how parents will react to an animated feature criticising them for wanting to provide a happy childhood, but I hope they take Docter’s message as intended. Developed with the help of two renowned psychologists, Inside Out won’t just entertain your kids. It’ll give your whole family a new tool to communicate personal feelings and foster self-awareness. This strikes me as such a beautiful achievement that I actually got teary-eyed at the thought of one day asking my son or daughter, “What are you feeling right now? Who’s on the control panel?”