An animated feature for kids acknowledging the cognitive importance of sadness? It has to be a Pixar movie. One day our children will ask us what it was like to be able to roll up and see the new Pixar film the same way we asked our grandparents what it was like to put down a dollar for “Snow White”, “Pinocchio”, “Dumbo” or “Bambi”. Pixar have already matched Disney in the 1940s with a running flush of their own, which includes “Toy Story”, “The Incredibles”, “WALL-E”, “Ratatouille” and “Up”, although there were rumblings of discontent over “Cars” and “Brave”. But good news: the studio’s new film, “Inside Out”, runs the full gamut of emotions we’ve come to expect from Pixar—joy, sadness, anger, fear—with one crucial difference: Joy, Sadness, Anger and Fear are also its stars.
The movie was directed by Pete Docter, who was responsible for “Monsters, Inc.” and “Up”. It is set partly inside the head of a 11-year-old girl, Riley, who has just moved from Minnesota to San Francisco, where broccoli pizza and judgmental classmates soon reduce Riley to tears. But let’s be accurate: asked to introduce herself to the class, Riley’s predominant emotion, Joy (Amy Poehler), a Tinkerbell-like sprite sat behind a control panel inside Riley’s head, calls up a core memory of a hockey triumph back in Minnesota. This comes in the form of a small glowing marble, colour-coded like a bowling ball, and duly prompts the right reminiscence from Riley, only for the memory to be intercepted by Sadness (Phyllis Smith), a blue booby who drags herself everywhere like an old sack. Disaster: Riley wells up in front of her classmates. Tussling for control, Joy and Sadness find themselves sucked into the vast, labyrinthine maze of Long-Term Memory, leaving Fear (Bill Hader), Anger (Lewis Black) and Disgust (Mindy Kaling) trying to do Joy’s job. Things do not go so well. There is sass, flouncing and tears before bedtime.
Like all Pixar films, this one seems both impossible when you first hear of it and inevitable once you’ve seen it. The neurological basis of emotions turns out to be a surprisingly good subject for an animated cartoon. The brightly personified feelings are almost like mini-animators themselves, pulling levers and pushing buttons to retain control of Riley’s reactions as she negotiates the moody, unruly world of pre-adolescence. It’s as if Docter were asking: what animates us? Some of his inventions are happier than others. The Islands of Personality that mark the outer perimeter of Riley’s internal landscape—Friendship Island, Family Island, Hockey Island, Goofball Island—have a slightly anodyne, theme-park feel to them. I was relieved to see them crumbling into the abyss as Riley grows more sullen and withdrawn, like those cliffs tumbling into the sea at the end of “Inception”: M.C. Escher meets “The Beano”.
The subconscious, too, seems like a missed opportunity, populated by a single giant birthday clown who is quickly evaded. You long to find out what a more daring animator, like Jan Švankmajer, would have made of that. Docter is on firmer footing with Dreamland, which turns out to be modelled on a golden-age Hollywood studio, complete with starlets, directors barking orders into megaphones, and P.O.V. cameras with wacky filters for added surrealism. Best of all, though, is Imaginationland, which comes with a big warning not to enter. “But that’s abstract thought”, worries Sadness, only to be pulled in by Joy. They find themselves turning from 3D to 2D, then into geometric shapes resembling Matisses, and finally into entirely non-figurative blobs of colour. “We’re deconstructing!” shrieks Sadness, like Daffy Duck caught up in the fiendish prison of Bugs Bunny’s devising in Chuck Jones’s self-referential classic “Duck Amuck”.
I wouldn’t be surprised to learn that Docter pinned Sadness’s cry up on the wall while his animators worked, as a warning. There is a translucency to the film’s ingenuity: you can see the idea glowing beneath the skin of the movie. What keeps it from the ever-present threat of abstraction and allows it to find a deeper anchor is the increasing size of the role of sadness. I mean that literally: the actual size of the role given to actual Sadness. Initially bossed around by the others—“I’m not actually sure what she does,” says Joy, “I’ve checked”—Sadness comes into her own as they meet up with some of the discarded relics of Riley’s childhood. These include her old imaginary friend, Bing Bong, a pink elephant-like creature with cat-like whiskers who is destined for the memory dump, and who taps into the same melancholy thoughts of inevitable obsolescence that drove the toys in “Toy Story”.
For every fresh adventure, a goodbye; for every conquest, loss: this is the Pixar message. Like all their films, “Inside Out” works on multiple levels. It is a parable of growing up, as the simplicities of childhood make way for the complexities of adolescence. In Sadness’s fight to be heard there is, too, an echo of Pixar’s own struggle to stick up for the darker, more introverted products of the young imagination, in need of protection against the louder, positive-thinking platitudes of their parent company, Disney. The film-makers strike a delicate balance between the demands of commerce and art, head and heart, nuance and simplicity—or “simplexity”, to use a Pixar buzzword. Only they seem capable of pulling it off right now. In their hands, mega-blockbuster hit-making seems something ineffably precious and tender.
Inside Out Released in America June 19th, in Britain July 24th