Film 2020: Inside Out


It’s been a gruelling experience watching this Sunday’s film on a corrupted DVD that played all the way through but kept stopping, and running dialogue over static images, on a regular basis. In between times, when the movie played normally, but not for more than about ten minutes at a time, I could relax and fall into Inside Out the way it deserves. It is, for me, one of the very best things Pixar has ever done.

Inside Out tells a story that is, at once, brilliantly simply and astonishingly complex. Riley Anderson is an eleven year old girl who has lived a very happy life in Minnesota, with friends, her parents, hockey. It’s an idyllic life as seen through her eyes, and her eyes are directed by five core aspects of personailty: Joy (my Poehler), Sadness (Phyllis Smith), Fear (Bill Hader), Disgust (Mindy Kaling) and Anger (Lewis Black). Joy is the first, created within the mind of a very tiny baby: her seniority and her ever-persistent personality dominate Riley’s life and she presses all the others into minor roles, especially Sadness, her opposite, whom she doesn’t understand the need for. Joy is represented as a Tinkerbellesque figure, ballet-slim, wearing a green dress, Sadness as an overweight, small blue girl in a heavy roll-neck sweater.

All’s been well so far. Riley is a happy girl and Joy is set on keeping her that way, forever. But her parents move to San Francisco, to an old, cramped, smelly house in a confined back street, in total contrast to Minnesota’s rural spaciousness. Her Dad’s new business is already facing financial fears, the moving truck with all their possessions is lost, Riley’s sleeping in a sleeping bag on the floor of an attic bedroom that could be but isn’t yet brilliant.

It’s clearly a time for Sadness to dominate, as things work themselves out. But Joy is determined to confine Sadness, to keep her from ‘contaminating’ not just the present but also the past. When Sadness influences Riley’s first day at her new school, causing her to cry with homesickness in front of her new class, it creates a new core memory, the first that isn’t joyful. Joy tries to prevent Sadness adding this to the existing five cores – each of which are the root of Personality Islands in the architecture of Riley’s mind, Family, Friendship, Hockey, Honesty and Goofball – the struggle unmoors all the cores and sucks them, Joy and Sadness out to the memory banks, leaving Anger, Disgust and Fear alone in Headquarters.

Riley has lost two fundamental aspects of her personality, emotions she can no longer feel unless Joy and Sadness can return to Headquarters with the core memories and reinsert them. Her circumstances go from bad to worse. Her Personality Islands have turned grey and inert once the core memories were removed: now, as Riley grows to hate her new life even more, these Islands crumble, one by one, as events overwhelm her.

Each further collapse in what she was makes harder and harder Joy and Sadness’s attempt to return. Joy is all forceful, but increasingly strained, determination, Sadness a useless, hapless lump. They discover, or rather re-discover, Bing Bong (Richard Kind), Riley’s long forgotten imaginary friend, who helps lead them on Joy’s promise to restore him to Riley’s mind.

The journey is fraught with obstacles as it tours a psychological landscape of stunning complexity, gliding through and around all manner of mental aspects, lightly yet tellingly. Meanwhile, the incapability of the three remaining aspects leads to Anger deciding, with flawed but cohererent logic, that since there are no core memories, and since all the good memories come from Minnesota, the answer is to run away back to Minnesota and make more core memories of them.

Things go desperate. Not only is Riley putting herself at naive risk, but mentally she is shutting down, going into an apathetic fugue. Joy ends up in Memory Dump, from which nothing returns, but escapes via the willing sacrifice of Bing Bong. Sadness, whose sensibility has been growing the longer the journey goes on, has been left untempered by Joy (an unstated pointer to the need of emotional balance), and is crying on a cloud. As the final Island, Family, starts to crumble, severing the last physical link to Headquarters in this mental landscape, Joy blows Sadness’s cloud towards the tower and constructs a tower of imaginary boyfrends (who would die for Riley) to bounce her off a trampoline and gain the momentum to fling both of them across the gulf.

By now, the control console has all but shut down. Everyone looks to Joy to restore order but she, having realised that Sadness has a purpose, that Riley’s memories can be and are composed of mixed emotions, sends the chubby blue girl to set things right, to remove the runaway idea and return Riley to her parents, openly able to admit her unhappiness, to cry over a lost past that they too have lost (we have already been introduced to the exact same five emotions driving Mom (Diane Lane) and Dad (Kyle MacLachlan) and the utter sharing of this tiny family creates another core memory, one composed of both Joy and Sadness.

Joy’s failing is that she has tried to keep Riley a little girl forever, with herself as the only necessary emotion. Sadness is needed to make sense of the world, to build the empathy between people that helps us all sustain ourselves when we are threatened with more than we can face. The Islands are restored, but now there are six of them: the new one is for San Francisco.

Then we jump a year. Riley is happy, settled, in tune. There are many sub-Islands, growing all the time. There’s a new, expanded console with room for all five to work at once, instead of one at a time. And a big red button no-one understands yet, marked Puberty. Riley is twelve now: what more could go wrong?

As I said, a beautifully simple story of a girl who moves home to a strange place where she is alone and can’t adjust, and a wonderfully complex psychological exploration of the cores of personailty. There was some concern pre-release, about whether the young kids would get it, and the film is very much more an adults film that anything else Pixar have released, even Up.

But the fascinating architecture of the inside of a person’s mind, the mind of a still young girl with great development only just glimpsed on the horizon, the madcap cartoon capers on the journey Joy, Sadness and Bing Bong take, the wonderfully precise exaggeration of the five emotions, and the film’s willingness to universalise its message by taking us into the heads of  both Dad and Mom (not to mention a panicked twelve year old boy in the coda) makes the film a visually inventive experience that kept the kids delighted.

The idea of going inside someone’s head and representing physical aspects anthopomorphically isn’t a new idea. It was used in a mostly amusing sitcom called Herman’s Head, an early Nineties three-season affair, and I’ll swear there was a comics series in the Sixties that used the same idea (was it The Nutts? No, that was in Valiant. In something like Buster? I dunno. Some comic I never got and only saw occasionally. Oh yes.). But Inside Out is definitely the most mature, thoughtul and moving exploration of the idea, and I’m going to have to get a DVD that plays properly to enjoy it in full.

2 thoughts on “Film 2020: Inside Out

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