Have you ever been to see a movie and felt like the filmmaker has somehow managed to peer into your very heart and soul, eerily and yet delightfully channeling everything you’ve ever seen, felt or heard into their cinematic creation?
That kind of emotional universality, of readily identifiable insight into a shared sense of the human condition is pretty rare – sure a gifted director or screenwriter might be able to create a film that speaks to a whole lot of people, a good thing since that’s how they make their money, but that’s not the same as distilling the thoughts, feelings and life experiences of the audience onto the screen before them.
Getting that right is a feat bordering on the magically miraculous and yet it’s exactly what the immensely talented Peter Docter (Monsters Inc, UP, WALL-E) has accomplished with Inside Out, easily the most touching, self-assured, and masterful work of animation from Pixar since UP.
The sheer genius of this delight of a film is the way in which Docter doesn’t simply tell us a story about one little girl, Riley (Kaitlyn Dias), aged 11, keen hockey player, goofball and hater of broccoli and clowns, who has to handle a move from the only home she’s ever known in Minnesota to a promising but entirely unknown new world of possibilities in San Francisco with her loving and supportive parents (Diane Lane and Kyle MacLachlan).
There’s enough relatable material in that sort of commonly-experienced scenario to sustain a film based on the external observations of its participants alone.
No, what Docter manages to do, and manages with the elegance of a balletically-inclined psychologist, one it should be noted with the heart of an appealingly goofy poet, is to take one girl’s emotions – joy, fear, sadness, disgust and anger – the ones guiding her reactions to the way in which the move has changed her world, initially she feels not for the better, and make them into something unwaveringly, poignantly universal.
This near-perfectly-realised accomplishment means you don’t simply watch Inside Out; you feel as you are re-living your life, in ways both happily silly, and touchingly profound, all over again.
It helps, of course, when these emotions, are played by some of the finest comic actors working at the moment.
Joy, the central emotion and gloriously peppy head cheerleader for everything Riley ever does – she’s like Tony Robbins and Pollyanna mixed into one deliriously upbeat person – is played to Leslie Knope perfection by Amy Poehler (Parks and Recreation), forever over-achieving and yet inherently, endlessly likeable.
She is the one who guards Riley’s most precious, defining memories, known as Core Memories, with a zealotry that ensures they remain pristine and unaffected by life; they are after all, the peak experiences that define how the young girl reacts to every event in her life and can’t be trifled with, or so Joy thinks at the time.
Her almost polar opposite, Sadness, played with glum, Eeyore-ness by Phyllis Smith (The Office), mopes around with jelly leg-like, fall-on-her-face-weeping morbidity, assuring anyone who will listen, and Joy does her best not to most of the time, that everything will likely end badly and they best prepare for that now.
She is however, for all her downcast moments, immensely intelligent and capable, the one prepared to face the harsh realities of life, knowing that they must be gone through before the good times can truly begin to roll.
Joining her on the control panel of emotions inside Riley’s head, a place of wonderment and colour filled with places like Imagination Land (the place of dreams and giant forests of french fries) and the Sub-Concious (beware of broccoli trees and stairs to the basement!), are Fear (Bill Hader, Saturday Night Live), Disgust (Mindy Kaling, The Mindy Project) and Anger (Lewis Black, The Daily Show).
Each of these emotions have their distinctive parts to play and are instrumental in shaping how Riley has interacted with the world around her since the day she was born, and how she will do so as she grows into adulthood.
But it takes an accident involving Joy and Sadness, and all the core memories that make Riley, well, Riley, and a fraught, though wonder-filled, journey back to Headquarters, the central hub of the young girl’s consciousness, to make everyone realise how much they need each other.
Chief among them, by virtue of their shared road trip through the places, good and bad, in Riley’s psyche, are Joy and Sadness who come to understand that each only really make sense without the other; it’s Joy who connects the dots first as she comes to realise that Riley is growing up fast into adulthood and will need a full array of emotions to deal with everything life is going to dish out to her.
The message, in amongst the elephantine/feline/dolphin delights of meeting Riley’s now much-neglected imaginary childhood friend, Bing-Bong (Richard Kind) and his musically-fuelled pretend rocket ship, is that unpleasant though they might be to go through, the sad times are necessary if you’re going to make sense of all the good times that usually follow.
It’s a powerful call to emotional wholeness and openness wrapped up in a film that delights, nay adores, colour, movement, imagination, every emotion you can possible think of, goofiness and profundity, and yes Rainbow Unicorn from the justly-admired and loved Fairytale Dream Adventure #7.
And one, delivered with Pixar’s trademark heart on sleeve whimsy, which resonates in ways large and small throughout this immensely pleasing film that doesn’t shy away from being real about the ways we see and experience the world, and how this shapes who we will become.
Inside Out is an unqualified joy to watch, an excursion into the universal “feels” of growing up, of coming to terms who we are and our place in the world, and of never underestimating anyone or anything, because you never know, in your joy/sadness/fear/disgust/anger-fuelled journey, how large a role they might play in the weird, wonderful and complicated thrilling ride we call life.