Cannes: Inside Out review

I have felt that Pixar lost their way over the past five years, with two disappointing sequels and an original feature that never quite came together – Cars 2, Monsters University and Brave – but Pete Docter’s Inside Out now puts the studio back at the top of its game.

Docter tells two parallel and interconnected stories. There’s the tale of the young Minnesotan Riley (Kaitlyn Dias), and then another story that exists entirely inside her head, as five anthropomorphised emotions react to everything happening in Riley’s life, and guiding how she feels about it.

These emotions are Joy (Amy Poehler), Sadness (Phyllis Smith), Disgust (Mindy Kaling), Anger (Lewis Black) and Fear (Bill Hader). All five are superb voice talents but Poehler in particular excels in the bubbly, everything-is-always-amazing role of Joy.

Things are going awry for Riley after her family’s move to San Francisco, and as the drama unfolds in the ‘real world’ we also see the internal struggle going on inside her mind. This sounds sounds conceptually tricky and maybe kind of dark on paper, but Docter’s mindscape is smartly constructed in such a way that the audience will never find themselves lost, or wrestling with excessively heavy-going themes.

And Inside Out is also incredibly funny, integrating goofy comedy that will work exceptionally well for young audiences with some sharp, witty writing that should have adults roaring with laughter. And  the more grown-up lines, like a discussion about the difference between facts and opinions, are cleverly woven into the plot that means younger viewers won’t feel like they’re missing something even as it flies right over their heads.

The world inside of Riley’s mind is a rich and highly detailed creation. There’s a system of coloured balls holding her memories, rolling off to be filed away in Long Term Memory. This vault is routinely trimmed of any memories deemed no longer necessary, though Riley’s core memories are stored specially in the ‘headquarters’ where her five emotions work. These core memories then help seed the ‘islands’ that define Riley’s personality, including such examples as Honesty, Family, Friendship and Hockey.

There are also further distinct areas that the film explores, including Imagination Land and Abstract Thought. The latter leads us into a very strikingly animated sequence that was a joy to behold.

While Riley’s move to San Francisco may be the catalyst for drama, the larger issue is her general growing up. The characters of Joy and Sadness are at the heart of this conflict, at first seeming to be in direct competition but later revealed to have a far more complex relationship.

Inside Out not only investigates how we might cope with difficult, emotionally challenging situations – and in particular how children can learn to deal with these – but it also speaks to serious issues such as depression, and how coping with such a condition isn’t about simply trying to be happy. This is affecting, emotionally complex storytelling that never oversimplifies or patronises. No mean feat considering that Docter and co. have a core conceit that they have committed to keeping simple for the good of their all-ages audience.

Inside Out can be an incredibly emotional experience, and there is one scene in particular that seems certain to have children bawling their eyes out. I saw the film with an audience of only adults, and many of us were sobbing uncontrollably.

But Docter and co-screenwriters Meg LeFauve and Josh Cooley’s script is so filled with humour and delightful imagination that the film breezes by, very appropriately inspiring as many tears of joy as it does  tears of sadness.