Inside Out (2015)

Director: Pete Docter

Screenplay by: Pete Docter, Meg LeFauve & Josh Cooley (from an original story by Pete Docter & Ronnie del Carmen)

Starring: Amy Poehler, Phyllis Smith, Richard Kind, Lewis Black, Bill Hader, Mindy Kaling, Kaitlyn Dias, Diane Lane & Kyle MacLachlan.

Runtime: 91 minutes

How do you make an adventure film for families about the subject of psychology and personality that is funny, exciting and entertaining? That was the challenge Disney Pixar set themselves when making Inside Out and it’s a challenge they set about with their familiar flair.

Pixar have always had a reputation for making thoroughly entertaining family films, which deal with important human themes in a way accessible to all age groups. Their continued ability to blend family friendly humour with a core of heartfelt sentiment, without descending into saccharine over-sentimentality has been at the centre of their consistent success.

With numerous box office successes under their belt, the difficulty for Pixar lies in constantly living up to their high standards; the next project always needs to match the legacy of what has gone before it.

The temptation for Pixar could be to settle on a recipe for making their films; to become formulaic, paint-by-numbers filmmakers, but Pixar is consistently at its best doing exactly the opposite. By taking on wide and varying subjects and by changing their voice and style with each subsequent movie they continue to challenge themselves in their creativity and storytelling.

Pixar has had success with its franchises too, of course, making sequels from many of its most successful titles such as Toy Story and Cars. But it is still in their original creations where their most interesting work lies. Much of this continued innovation is a result of the unique playful atmosphere and working environment of Disney Pixar Studios. It allows writers and animators to nurture their own imagination and develop a workspace in which stories and characters can be invented and brought to life.

Handing the reigns from one new director to another with each successive film and trusting them to follow on from what’s preceded them has been the added dimension which has further allowed for the multifarious output that Pixar has released over the past two decades. It has allowed Pixar to stay at the cutting edge of moviemaking since Toy Story first blew audiences and critics away and showed that computer animation features very much had a place and a future in cinema.

Inside Out was the brainchild of Pixar stalwart Pete Docter, the man who brought us Monsters Inc. and the heart warming Up. With such successes on his CV, Docter was clearly a safe pair of hands for Pixar’s next feature and as a writer and director who has been immersed in the Pixar story since the early days of their mainstream cinematic journey, he was an obvious choice to take on the challenge of directing the next truly original feature for the studio.

Unsurprisingly, Inside Out is everything you’d expect from a Pete Docter film: smart, humorous and moving; overall, a perfect recipe for a family film, and a tried and tested philosophy for Pixar. Pixar have an established track record of getting inside the hearts and minds of their audience. They get to the essence of human experience – and especially childhood experience – in such a way that they can both speak to the children in the audience whilst simultaneously taking the adults back to their own childhood memories.

They have had undoubted success telling all kinds of stories about all manner of subjects. Although their principal characters are often things with which we don’t seemingly imagine building engaging, emotional relationships with on screen (cars, insects, toys, fish), their beautifully observed human traits and the personifications attached to the characters give the films real heart and emotional strength.

Inside Out follows in the style of meta-filmmaking – taking a story about emotional psychology and telling it through the personification of the emotions themselves – that Pixar has continually marketed so well. We’re invited to go through the looking glass in this film and literally enter the lead character’s thoughts, and in so doing are challenged to actively enter into our own thought processes and personalities.

It’s this kind of transcendent, introspective narrative structure that gives Pixar’s films their almost universal appeal. Their films are about common human experiences and what it is to be human; emotions are universal, and whatever peoples’ experiences in life and growing up, we all go through and share in these same feelings in life.

Taking the emotions and literally personifying them is not just a wonderfully simple concept, but one that simplifies a complex topic too. Inside Out becomes an introduction to psychoanalysis and a wonderful gateway for parents and children to enter into discussions about emotions and feelings.

It’s this facet that makes this film a much more important family film, it isn’t just entertaining for all, it additionally provides children with a ready emotional language which encourages children to intimately interact with their parents, which can only be a positive thing.

As with all Pixar films, the concept of the film is a simple enough quest/adventure film. Entering into the mind of Riley (Kaitlyn Dias) – a 12 year old girl going through a big move away from her childhood home and dealing with the changes that that entails – We are introduced to her (and humanity’s) key emotions. We are given a humorous view of the processes they use to control her every action and how they’ve gone about shaping her very personality.

In her formative years, Riley’s mind is principally controlled by Joy (brilliantly voiced by Amy Poehler), an environment encouraged by her secure and happy upbringing. Joy’s job entails keeping the other more negative emotions that co-habit Riley’s mind in check, namely Anger (Lewis Black), Disgust (Mindy Kaling), Sadness (Phyllis Smith) and Fear (Bill Hader) but as the stresses and tensions in Riley’s changing life begin to rise, Sadness inadvertently begins to impact on Riley’s thinking and become much more prominent. From this point on, everything in her mind begins to slip out of Joy’s understanding and control and things start to go very wrong.

The newfound chaos eventually leads to Joy and Sadness accidentally being ejected from their home in the control centre of her conscious mind and into the outer reaches of her brain. Joy’s absence leaves Riley’s mind under the control of Anger, Fear and Disgust, subsequently leaving her at the mercy of her more destructive and negative feelings.

Inevitably things start to go wrong and her mental world literally begins to crumble; however, as these more negative emotions begin to lose control and come to terms with this collapsing world, Riley’s redemption and emotional maturity begins to develop elsewhere in her mind.

Removed from the control centre, Joy starts to realise that – far from being merely a negative influence on her surroundings – Sadness can actually be a thoroughly important catalyst for positive action and emotion; an integral emotion for developing Riley’s mind and encouraging it to grow in emotional complexity and sensitivity.

What Docter and the team succeed in doing is taking the complex emotions that are taking over at that age, and attempting to explain and rationalise them within a fun adventure story.

The adventure-quest narrative in combination with its emotional psychological heart make Inside Out its own film within Pixar’s wider lexicon of work; however, it has a lot of the elements we’ve become familiar with from Pixar’s previous features too, Joy and Sadness’ quest to find their way back to their rightful place in Riley’s mind is similar to that of Buzz and Woody’s quest to find their way back to Andy in Toy Story (1995) or Flick’s redemption in A Bug’s Life (1998).

A large part of the appeal and intelligence of this film comes from the vast scope from which the filmmakers can draw inspiration. By making an adventure film and setting it within the mind, they are able to play with psychological conventions and the common quirks that make up any human mind. The annoying song or jingle that is always somewhere near at hand; the humorous idea of your dreams being directed on a soundstage, by a cast of “dream” actors; the old imaginary friend (in Riley’s case Bing-Bong) roaming around and slowly fading into forgotten memory or just the fact that Joy and Sadness are able to travel around on a literal “train of thought”.

This was a thoroughly researched project, which gives the film an added dimension of authenticity. Docter was keen to liaise with some eminent thinkers in emotional psychological studies, working with prominent emotional psychologist, Paul Ekman and Dacher Keltner, a professor of psychology from the University of California. He was able to make use of their research – in particular Ekman’s identification of six core emotions – as a point of reference for the finer points of his screenplay and the characters within it.

This kind of focus, attention to detail and acknowledgment of the importance of research is what separates their films from being just fun animated films. Their research and preparation shows a passion and genuine love for what they do; producing an average film or something generic is not in their philosophy, they are perfectionists.

For Pixar’s filmmakers, screenwriters and animators, no amount of preparation is too much preparation. With the amount of research that went into the project the team gave themselves a rich source of knowledge to tap into, and subsequently the observations they make about the intricacies of human psychology are both hilarious and so instantly familiar and recognisable that it’s hard to leave the cinema without thinking about the make-up of your own mind and thoughts.

This film is arguably even smart enough to hold up against scrutiny and raise a smile from any psychologists. It contains some really nice ideas about the formation of the subconscious, containing a humorous trip through childhood memories and an astute segment where they take a beginners guide through the stages of abstract thought.

Some of the best laughs though are saved for our entry into other characters’ minds, such as those of her mom and dad. They have a lot of fun focusing on the differing make-up of the male and female headspace, and towards the end even touring through random characters’ thoughts – both human and animal – for some added comedy.

Pixar has been continually successful, winning award after award, and critical acclaim seemingly with every subsequent release, and Inside Out has followed in those illustrious footsteps. This is a film which seemed on the surface to be a hard sell, and it was indeed initially something of a concern for the execs and money men too; without the calming background presences of the late Steve Jobs and a smaller role for Mr. Pixar himself, John Lasseter, this was a film made in a slightly different environment to their previous successes.

However, in the hands of a veteran like Pete Docter, and the trustworthy writing talent of Ronaldo del Carmen, what’s been created is a smart, heartfelt look into our inner workings, a film which transcends mere entertainment, offering instead a psychologically cathartic trip through collective memory and experience.

In typical Pixar style what has been created is a film which speaks to even the hardest of hearts. It’s difficult not to finish watching this without a feeling of happiness radiating throughout your mind. As has so often been the case within Pixar’s back catalogue, their films not only entertain us, but offer us the opportunity to engage with our emotions; in the case of Inside Out, that’s just a more literal process.

As with all good children’s films, there’s an important moral behind their story; get to know your emotions, learn to understand them and finally, embrace them for making you who you are. Growing up can be challenging, but if you know yourself well, it can be just that little bit easier.

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