(SPOILERS) The near-universal acclaim greeting the all-but latest Pixar offering is mostly warranted. It’s certainly their best feature in years, years that have been replete with a cash-in sequels and not-quite-there, increasingly rare, original outings. I have to admit I was sceptical, with Inside Out’s familiar high concept premise having been explored before, in movies, TV and animation, and what appeared to be a dubiously patronising approach to the workings of the mind (you know, for kids!) Yet, while Inside Out is sometimes a little rocky in terms of structure and plotting, it is mostly persuasively irresistible in character, and often hearteningly inventive. It might not be quite up to the standards of Pixar’s peak period, but Peter Doctor’s animation suggests such days aren't yet behind them.
Initially, the distillation of emotions into the handful that comprises Joy, Sadness, Anger, Fear and Disgust seems reductive and arch. Added to which, there’s a sense, not uncommon with Pixar fare, that this is a movie made by parents trying to relate to and understand their kids, rather than being a movie actually, you know, for kids. That feeling still lingers at times, and the lesser aspect is undoubtedly the uncanny valley of aesthetically-challenged parents and child. Like Toy Story (fortunately, the humans aren't quite so unnerving as the specimens there), the animators limit themselves to a milieu of domestic mundanity and attempt to eke out something creative therein. In both cases, the kids themselves aren't really a part of the vibrant aspect of the scenario, don't get to embrace it; Pixar’s children reflect the restricted reality of their mobility-challenged parents, wedged behind computer screens banging out code all day.
But Pete Doctor, whose Monsters, Inc. I didn’t find overly impressive, unchanged by repeat visits, has nevertheless tapped into an infectious cause-and-effect here. While the emotions’ designs are nothing particularly special, they’re undeniably effective. Joy’s struggle for control of her host’s diminishing sense of positivity, as she is uprooted and moved to San Francisco, may be a little hard to swallow as a new thing for an eleven-year-old (everything has been Rainbow Unicorns, the odd interlude excepted, it seems we are supposed to think), but the give-and-take as other emotions, particularly Sadness, wrest control, and Joy learns empathy through Sadness (sadness can be a positive emotion!), is a tidy and measured metaphor (leading to an obligatory family hug which is, at least, as Doctor points out, something different from the usual fireworks finale).
The internal logic of Riley’s state of mind, with Joy and Sadness excised from the control room, did give me pause, since it’s difficult to swallow that, in her uprooted and distressed state, Sadness wouldn’t also be getting a look in amid the Anger, Fear and Disgust, and I found the islands of personality rather a banal visual device (smacking too much of a “how your brain works” documentary), ditto Joy’s attempts to retain perceived vital core memories. But Joy and Sadness’ attempts to navigate their way back to Headquarters is confidently paced, and occasionally even dazzles.
Imaginary childhood friend Bing Bong, marvellously voiced by Richard Kind, is a splendid creation, mostly candy and part-cat, part-elephant, part-dolphin, who even cries candy (and whose departure from the picture is truly touching).
And the further the picture strays from its central purpose, the more creatively engaged it becomes, the highlight being a flight through abstract thought, in which the characters break down into cubist and two-dimensional forms. The dream production factory is also quite smart (the I’m Falling for a Very Long Time into a Pit poster, styled on Vertigo), although this also highlights a tendency to take easy, rather than less travelled options; a scary clown? Again? Really? Hatred of broccoli? Likewise, the imaginary boyfriend, which seems more about writers lost for ideas than congruent with their character.
One might argue the representation of the internal workings of the adult minds also indulges lazy stereotypes (dad is always thinking about football, mum is constantly on-message, except when she is daydreaming of the guy she could have been with instead of her husband, which is slightly off; perhaps they should have showed dad surfing porn sites too, while they were at it?), something underlined by the inferior Riley’s First Date? short (it’s what you’d imagine the picture would be like if everyone was taking a lot less care than Doctor). Essentially, though, this gag-based shorthand is effective and funny, designed to evidence our comparable inner processes, rather than something to get too worked up over.
The voice cast, led by Amy Phoeler, acquit themselves with honours, although it’s a case where you wonder – as ever with modern animations – what names like Kyle McLachlan and Diane Lane brought to the table when unknown vocal artists could surely have got the job done just as well. I’d read mixed things about the Lava short that preceded screenings of Inside Out, but I found it charming; probably its standing rests on whether you go for the simple, catchy tune, which I did. Inside Out already seems to have been lent perspective by the subsequent nose-dive that is The Good Dinosaur; hopefully Pixar press forward with its successes in mind, rather than taking the back foot due to its failures. They desperately need more Inside Outs, and less Cars 3s and even (much as I’m intrigued to see them, I also think they’d have been better left as stand-alones) Finding Dory and The Incredibles 2.