Inside Out earned some deep responses when it premiered at Cannes last month, with more enthusiastic reviewers promising it would outlive cinema itself, suggesting the movie could re-orient how we think about human thought. I thought it was fun, but … let's just say it's often true that movies about going inside people's heads, from The Wizard of Oz to Being John Malkovich, tend to get inside people's heads.
Let's start with a more modest claim: Inside Out is imaginative and ambitious, even if it sometimes feels a bit manically overstuffed. And it's definitely a big step up from some recent Pixar films, such as Cars 2 and Monsters University.
"Do you ever look at someone and wonder what is going on inside their head?" asks Joy (Amy Poehler), but it's a trick question, because she's about to show you that you have absolutely no idea.
Shortly after, we're introduced to Riley, as a newborn baby. Inside her tiny noggin, behind her blinking eyes, there's a Star Trek-style control centre in a Space Needle-style tower.
Joy, with yellow glowing skin and blue hair, really likes to operate the controls. Along with her is the blue, bespectacled Sadness (Phyllis Smith), purple Fear (Bill Hader), fat red firecracker Anger (Lewis Black) and snooty green Disgust (Mindy Kaling).
Our story jumps to a crisis when Riley (voiced by Kaitlyn Dias), now a hockey-loving tomboy of 11, is put under stress. Her parents (Kyle MacLachlan and Diane Lane) decide to move from Minnesota to San Francisco, where her father has a new tech job and mom doesn't seem to do much except feel sad.
The external world that Riley lives in is depicted in the photo-realistic style we know from other Pixar movies, but more everyday-shabby: San Francisco looks grey; her new townhouse home is a dump. There's a dead mouse in her room (cue Disgust) and the local pizza has broccoli on it (cue Disgust once more).
Up in the control room, memories – shaped like small, coloured bowling balls – are sent by pneumatic tubes into the giant theme park of the brain. Because Riley is out of sorts, Sadness keeps touching things and making them turn blue. Joy, who keeps trying to keep everyone else in line, loses control: She and Sadness are ejected out of Headquarters and into the brain. Fear, Anger and Disgust are left in charge.
As depicted in Inside Out, the brain is a kind of Dali-esque fantasy park. Much of it consists of a giant maze, with walls made of what appear to be huge gumball machines, filled with coloured spherical memories. Around them, connected by thin bridges, are a series of "islands of personality" built of core memories, with such titles as Friendship, Family, Goofball and Honesty.
In other words, it's a bit busier and more entertaining than what typically goes on in my head, though there's even less evidence of anyone in charge. There are, however, menial workers discarding phone numbers and old piano lessons (like the recent Jurassic World, the movie seems inspired by issues in theme-park maintenance). There's also a dark abyss full of lost memories underneath and an automatic "train of thought" that runs around it like a monorail at the zoo.
Among the train stops is a place where dreams are created on a studio lot, which seems a little obvious. A wittier idea is a place called Abstract Thought. It's a shortcut to Headquarters, but the characters risk being reduced to Picasso drawings and then mathematical shapes before they get there.
While Joy (dragging Sadness by the heels, which is not a bad depiction of depression) struggles to get back to Headquarters, out in the "real" world of unexpectedly crummy-looking San Francisco, Riley is having a sad, bad time. She's embarrassed at school, misses her friends and lashes out at her parents. Our heartstrings get tugged (though that would be another movie).
Inside Riley's head, happy memories are disappearing, the "islands of personality" are crumbling and an imaginary childhood friend, depicted as a pink cotton candy elephant named Bing Bong (Richard Kind), refuses to be forgotten. In the Subconscious, a malevolent birthday clown stirs.
Through the film's busy middle section, with its bright colours and blink-and-they're-gone visual gags, sometimes it feels a little like having cartoon characters stomping all over your own brain. At least the Emotions are entertaining, and less one-dimensional than you might think. Lewis Black's Anger takes great joy in blowing his top, while Sadness has a tender warmth for miserable thoughts.
If the mechanism of Inside Out seems both simplistic and complicated, the message is straightforward: It's okay to feel sad, mad, scared or disgusted. Sometimes those feelings are even downright enjoyable.