This latest of Pixar’s has been received with happy reviews that reflect the film’s central character of ‘Joy.’ Critics and cinema goers alike have praised its depth and layers of meaning, its sense of fun, and its effect of making you want to hug your family. Others have expressed disappointment, saying it left their kids sad and baffled when they should have been entertained.
I saw this with my wife, 9 year old son and 5 year old daughter. The son is a harsh critic and was left utterly cold by the acclaimed “Paddington” for example. But through this film he was engaged, smiling and responsive to the humour. Unprompted at the end he declared it ‘good.’ My younger daughter was more baffled and bemused, burrowing into her Mum’s shoulder at the moments of threat. From this I would say that the film would be most enjoyed by children 10-12 and any age upwards. The age of the central protagonist, Riley, is 12, so children around that age will find the most to relate to.
The story is, Riley and her family are moving home, due to Dad’s work, moving to the more urban environment of San Francisco. This throws Riley’s emotional life into turmoil, and as you will have gathered from the film’s marketing, reviews, word of mouth etc. her emotional life is personified by a range of brightly coloured cartoon characters; Joy (US sitcom ‘Park and Recreation’s’ Amy Poehler), Sadness (another US sitcom ‘The Office’ actress Phyllis Lapin-Vance), and the rest of the emotion cast have also a strong comedic background, with Bill Nader playing Fear, Lewis Black voicing Anger (good casting, because as well as his comedy he is also a strong social critic) and Disgust by Mindy Kaling. The emotions sit in Riley’s skull, as with the old Beano strip ‘The Numskulls.’ They control from a Starship Enterprise like Bridge and console. They process her memories and core memories, which are brightly colour coded spheres (gold for joy, blue for sadness etc.), monitoring her dreams (produced by her own in-skull film studio, and the main structures of her personality here represented as islands based around such themes as ‘family,’ ‘honesty,’ ‘hockey,’ ‘friendship,’ and ‘goofy.’ They work as a team with Joy in the ascendant, constantly side-lining sadness as a risk, or irrelevant. Their stability is shattered as it is with Riley with the move house. This participates huge change, and in a panicky attempt to preserve the status-quo, Joy inadvertently sets off a series of events that sees her and sadness ejected from the bridge and lost in Riley’s long term memories. Their they meet Riley’s imaginary friend Bing Bong. Meanwhile, Anger, Disgust and Fear are left in control, as Riley’s island’s of personality start to disintegrate under the strain of the change of new home, new school etc. And Anger has a bright idea based on, well, anger. That of running away. Joy, Sadness and Bing Bong must get back to the bridge to regain control, but in the process, Joy may have to learn that sometimes, Sadness just has to be part of the team.
The film is an emotional roller-coaster, from the lump in the throat moment at the beginning of Riley forming her first memory as a newborn, to a montage of happy childhood memories, very funny moments (chiefly involving anger), to the drama of the crisis and a resolution that certainly had us parents welling up. This is down to the story telling, animation, voice acting and themes that are already freighted with emotion in a film about emotion, such as childhood, families under crisis etc. It is laugh out loud funny, with the interactions of the emotions not only in Riley but in her parents and sometimes those around her. Anger (for me) raised the most laughs, especially in a scene where the father’s anger emotion raises the Defcon stakes before ‘putting his foot down’ and sending Riley to her room. There are a lot of sight gags and a great visual, imaginative and inventive wit.
The conceit of the emotions and how they work in the machinery of Riley’s head is of course well developed from its Numskulls roots. But whereas there has to be a limit on what a family animated feature can cover on the subject of a child’s mental health, there are some limitations that worried me. The emotional spectrum is vast, and so having 5 core emotions characters must needs be very reductive. ‘Love’ is never mentioned explicitly, for example, although it is represented through the characters actions, and what of all the other kinds of intelligence such as spiritual intelligence, intellectual ability etc? Emotions are not everything and nor should they be completely in control, and yet here they are.
The other problem the film raised for me is that, it carries it’s meaning, it’s more weighty messages and lessons, a lot less loosely than did the Toy Story trilogy. The Toy Story films had a lot to say about growing up and childhood, and yet the vehicles of story and entertainment came first and the deeper stuff came back to you on reflection, or on repeated viewings. Here the life lessons etc. run alongside the entertainment and are much more obvious, and less effortlessly carried by the story. As a result the sadness in the film will, for a lot of children, not be sufficiently carried by all the fun stuff.
I also need to warn you about a short film preceding the main one as in the great Pixar tradition. It’s called ‘Lava’ and is about singing volcanoes falling in love. It is charming enough, and a treat to look at, but it has one of biggest ‘ear-worm’ songs I’ve heard in a long time. Pleasant enough, but extremely difficult to get out of your head!
To sum up ‘Inside Out’ is a justly praised, intelligent and funny family film, well worth a holiday trip to the cinema.