So, wait, we’re confused: Are kids getting smarter or dumber? Are they getting fatter or leaner? Are touchscreens helping them sort, sift and locate information or turning them into mindless drones? While it’s never been a good idea to look at the kind of stuff that’s marketed to children in order to understand them, it is telling to look at Pixar’s back catalogue and notice not only the range of themes but, more importantly, the immense success they have reaped.
Pixar’s 2007 film Ratatouille was about the delicate construction and artistic catharsis of food construction and enjoyment for God’s sake. Most “grown-up” films don’t aspire to that level of complication. Yet time and time again Pixar have proved that talking up to kids seems to be the answer. Their film Up in 2009, for example, began with a ten-minute wordless montage that ran from childhood romance to widowhood with grace and inordinate poignancy. It is then of course no surprise that their latest offering, on paper conceptually woolly, emerges as a triumphant testament to their ongoing mission to engage and educate.
Inside Out largely takes place inside the head of Riley, an eleven-year-old Minnesotan and avid ice-hockey player whose life is defined by her passion for sport and an honest and loving relationship with her parents. When her father gets a new job in San Francisco, the family uproot and relocate – much to the distress of the five manifestations of emotion that run things in Riley’s mind – Joy, Sadness, Disgust, Fear, and Anger.
Together, the team work around the clock to enable Riley’s emotional wellbeing, cataloging and creating new memories (that Pixar simply depicts as coloured bowling-ball sized marbles), keeping her core-memories aired and exhibited, removing unnecessary data, and generally keeping her buoyant and, well, happy.
At the end of each day, the memories created are sorted and shipped off to power one of Riley’s five “personality islands” – areas that define who she is. If it all sounds a bit BBC Horizon and not child-friendly subject matter at all, oh how wrong you would be. In fact, I would suggest that Inside Out is actually bona fide adult drama by stealth; a complex psychological narrative in the guise of a film for kids. Every aspect of the brain and its machinations are explored, and often, the various components translate so well into animated renderings, you’re left wondering how no-one has ever done this before.
The subconscious becomes a Burton-esque fantasy-land full of surreal imagery, long-term memory features endless high-stacked shelves of random memory-marbles (which amusingly are seen to be patrolled by curators who assess and vacuum away the useless ones), and Riley’s “memory-dump” is a genuinely terrifying and desolately sad abyss in which defunct memories are abandoned and left to expire to dust in their own time.
In a way, it’s certainly one of Pixar’s more solemn offerings, but there are long sequences of joyous levity too. (You can imagine what happens once we get to The Train of Thought). The five emotions who spar and vie for control in Riley’s conscious mind (“Headquarters” – get it?) squabble and bicker, but as usual with Pixar, nothing is ever too mean-spirited, and there’s a genuine camaraderie between them, which actually, scientifically speaking, makes a lot of sense. But it’s when Joy and Sadness are catapulted from Headquarters and into long-term memory where things really pick up, and Inside Out becomes the Hero’s Journey staple that makes it so compelling.
All of which bodes well for the future of features for children. The technical animation is flawlessly designed and presented, but Inside Out isn’t just fodder engineered to occupy and distract; it’s magically, intuitively absorbing and instructive, with nary an anthropomorphic animal in sight.
Pixar have made an enterprising and elegantly coherent kids’ movie about the strange and wondrous intricacies and vagaries of human consciousness. Just stop and think about that for a moment.
Cineworld showcase all the biggest and best films in the UK. Find screenings of Inside Out plus all of this week’s newest releases over at the Cineworld website.