Pixar’s latest film, Inside Out, focuses on an 11-year-old girl, Riley (Kaitlyn Dias). Or rather, the film focuses on what is going on inside Riley’s head. We are introduced to the headquarters of Riley’s mind, run by personified emotions – Joy, Sadness, Anger, Fear and Disgust – that control everything Riley feels. It’s been easy to keep Riley happy so far, after an idyllic childhood in her hometown in Minnesota, but after the family move, Riley’s mind grows more turbulent. After Sadness attempts to interfere with proceedings, she and Joy end up getting lost in the depths of Riley’s mind. They must find their way back to the HQ, if she is ever to feel Joy or Sadness again.
The film’s premise is an intriguing one, but what exactly does the inside of someone’s mind look like? How would it work? And is it a premise that can be sustained throughout the film’s 102 minutes of screentime? Never fear, Pixar deliver the answers to these questions across the next hour and forty minutes with imagination, inventiveness and ease. Oh, and colour. Inside Out is definitely in competition for the most colourful animated film released in recent years – from Joy’s yellow fluorescence to Disgust’s vivid green hue, and from the shimmering orbs that constitute memories to the cheerfully colourful train of thought that travels across Riley’s mind. Whereas the outside world of San Francisco is dull and grey-scale, inside Riley’s mind is buzzing with colour and activity.
The landscape of Riley’s mind is bright and fantastical. From Dream Productions, styled as a 1930s-esque Hollywood studio and the theme-park-like Imagination Land to the various Personality Islands that make Riley who she is, it’s a gloriously imaginative and wonderful world, and a perfect setting for the film’s double-act (complete opposites Joy and Sadness)’s turbulent journey to get back to HQ. For, though the world of the film is incredible, as in all Pixar films, it’s the characters that give Inside Out its soul. It seems impossible to make characters meant to personify specific emotions into complicated and interesting personalities. But Pixar’s characters are all fun, likeable and interesting, though Anger, Disgust and Fear may not get the same amount of development as Sadness and Joy. Joy, in fact, is the star of the show, the true protagonist of the film (voiced excellently by Parks and Recreation’s Amy Poehler), whose devotion to Riley pulls on the heart-strings. She may embody one emotion, but she is also all at once complex, flawed and endearing. Joy’s partner-in-crime Sadness (Phyllis Smith), is the perfect opposite to Joy’s energy and vigour, being as she is, quiet and sympathetic. Other characters shine as well: Bing Bong (Richard Kind), the imaginary friend of Riley’s earlier youth, is also a memorable character and is the one responsible for the film’s most heartbreaking moment, whilst Riley herself is a likeable character trying her best to be strong for her parents.
Along with its cast of memorable characters, Inside Out also stands out as a rare original film in a time when sequels have become the norm, both for live-action and for animation studios (Inside Out’s competitor is, after all, the spin-off Minions film). It makes financial sense – you can just look at the box office numbers to see that. Whilst there are still new films being made, they are clearly designed to adhere to a certain model – big-budget films must be franchisable, sure to spawn a series of follow-ups which will rake in the cash. This leads to these first films of many to feel more like a set-up, rather than a full film (I’m looking at you Big Hero 6). Pixar have been culprits of this sequel madness lately, with the middling Monsters University and Cars 2 as past releases, and with sequels in their future too, such as The Incredibles 2, Finding Dory and Toy Story 4. So it is a relief to see a film that is completely original. Inside Out may well get a sequel in the future, but it doesn’t need one – it stands up as an individual film in itself. This doesn’t feel like the creators are following a franchisable blueprint. The only formula that Inside Out seems to adhere to is classic Pixar: an odd-couple duo at its centre, with a life-altering journey, wit, imagination, fun and above all, heart.
Like the best of Pixar, such as Up and Toy Story, Inside Out has a deep message to impart, without being heavy-handed. No other studio can deliver with such subtle poignancy the messages imbued in Inside Out; that all emotions have their place and that, at some point, it’s time to let go of the past. It’s a classic coming-of-age story that delicately plucks on the heart strings, and gently encourages children (and perhaps adults, too) to embrace their feelings. The film is perhaps aimed at a slightly younger audience that Pixar’s previous films (there’s maybe less subtle jokes to keep the adults entertained), but as a family film, that’s hardly a drawback. With Inside Out, Pixar have gone back to their roots, and proven that, in the game of big-budget animation, they are still the superior studio in imagination, originality and emotional impact.