Having studied critical theory, I’m painfully aware that cleverness is often characterised in terms of couching relatively simple ideas in complex, obfuscatory language. The best works of art, however, take complicated notions and make them digestible for the masses. Pixar’s “Inside Out” is a supreme example of this.
In terms of external plot, not much happens: 11 year-old Riley moves from Minnesota to San Francisco with her parents and is unhappy for a couple of days. The gimmick, of course, is that her inner turmoil is enacted by brightly-hued representations of the emotions which run her mind – Joy, Sadness, Anger, Fear and Disgust, in the well-worn “Numbskulls”/”Herman’s Head” style.
The novelty, though, is that “Inside Out” is a work of remarkable intelligence and considerable emotional complexity. Since Riley is a child, Joy is predominant (voiced by an exuberant Amy Poehler) but Sadness, portrayed as a plaintive big-eyed teen Goth (and appealingly voiced by Phyllis Smith is always close at hand). The narrative involves the pair getting lost in long-term memory, and struggling to return to the control-room, before the other emotions cause a catastrophe.
One is used to films aimed at children throwing in jokes to placate the adult audience, but when references include not only “Chinatown” but also abstract expressionism, it becomes clear that the creative team (led by directors Pete Docter and Ronnie del Carmen) are not in the mood for talking down to anyone. We are bombarded with ideas :- the putting away of childish things; the need for the dark in order for us to appreciate the light; the fact that other people are every bit as confused as we are…
If I have one criticism, it’s that Disgust (Mindy Kaling) is often burdened with boring, non-character-specific, expository dialogue. And at the screening I attended, the wonders on screen failed to silence many of the under-eights present.
Nevertheless, “Inside Out” is visually stimulating, emotionally resonant, profoundly intelligent and very funny. If a more satisfying film comes along in 2015, I will be very surprised. And delighted. And intrigued. (etc).