Arts & Books

Film review: A head-spinning battle between Joy and Sadness

Latter-day Numskulls: Anger, Disgust, Joy, Fear and Sadness in Inside Out

From a young boy growing up in Toy Story to an old man losing the love of his life in Up, Pixar specialises in taking familiar narratives and turning them into extraordinary ones. And the Disney-owned studio’s latest film, Inside Out, takes the question of how our personalities are shaped and interrogates it with its customary insight, wit and wild imagination.

The concept at play here – originally seen in British comic strip The Numskulls – is that humans are operated by a small team of tiny creatures living and working within the brain. We begin in the head of Riley, a young kid very happy with her life in the Midwest. Her cast of internal helpers, each representing a different emotion, keep her mood in check, her memories stored and her developing personality under observation.

Joy, a permanently cheerful little fairy, hogs Riley’s control desk and does her best to ensure that the likes of Anger, a furious red rectangle, and Sadness, a sulky blue blob, spend minimal time calling the shots.

When Riley and her parents move from Minnesota to San Francisco, her happy glow dissipates and she hatches a plan to escape back to her old life. This is the external drama, but inside Riley’s head there’s plenty more going on. As she becomes more unsettled, so Joy, along with Sadness, accidentally find themselves ejected from “headquarters”, leaving Anger and the other members of the brains trust, Fear and Disgust, in charge.

In making their way back, Joy and Sadness befriend Bing Bong, Riley’s forgotten imaginary friend, and have to break out of the dank dungeon of the subconscious, containing scary clowns and even scarier broccoli.

The energy and invention of the interior world created by director Peter Docter and his team is something to marvel at. Jokes, both visual and verbal, arrive at a relentless pace. An annoying advertising jingle pops up at random intervals and there’s great fun to be had once the control centres of the other human characters are introduced.

As Riley and her dad argue, competing Angers take over. The moment dad’s anger manager hits the “putting the foot down” button is one of unalloyed joy.

This being Pixar, Inside Out has quite a few serious things to say, too. Painful experiences are an integral part of making us who we are, it tells us. As Riley deals with big changes in her life, so Joy learns she mustn’t keep Sadness on the sidelines. Thankfully, this melancholy revelation is not offered as an alternative to youthful abandon. Sure, we all need to grow up, but Inside Out shows how wondrous childhood can be.

This article first appeared in the latest edition of the Catholic Herald magazine (24/7/15).

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