Inside Out review - Pixar are back to their best
Watching 20 years of unalloyed excellence has left one pretty pernickety when it comes to Pixar movies. And while their last three outings, Cars 2, Brave, and Monsters University were all warmly reviewed and between them grossed almost $2 billion, they weren't all that easy to get excited about.
The best Pixar films have pushed the boundaries of conventional animation and mixed high-concept stories with knowing wit and elements of social realism, like the motherless fish in Finding Nemo, or the devastated widower in Up. But their most recent films have been solid and undemanding mainstream entertainments, and left some people wondering if Pixar has finally become just another outlet of Disney.
Not just yet, I'm happy to say, because with Inside Out the studio bounces back to its boldly original and idiosyncratic best. In fact you could argue that Pete Docter's animation is Pixar's highest concept movie yet, being set for the most part inside the rapidly evolving mind of an 11-year-old girl called Riley, whose happy life with her doting parents is threatened when they move from rural Minnesota to San Francisco.
Her father has headed west to start his own tech company, but from Riley's point of view that's a poor excuse for abandoning the only home she's ever known. Alone in a strange city and facing a daunting début at a new school, Riley misses her friends and her beloved ice hockey, and begins to resent her doting, fussing parents.
Inside Riley's mind, meanwhile, it's battle stations. In a gleaming command centre, her embodied emotions run a control desk, moderating Riley's moods and taking care of her precious memories, glowing golden orbs which arrive through a labyrinth of tubes. Joy (Amy Poehler) is their leader, and throughout Riley's blissful childhood her job has been a breeze. Now, though, the clouds are darkening, and Joy must fight the negativity of Fear (Bill Hader), Anger (Lewis Black) and sadness (Phyllis Smith) if she's to protect Riley's well-being.
Or so she thinks. Because although Joy constantly thwarts Sadness's attempts to help, she slowly begins to realise there may be a place in Riley's life for the gloomy blue emotion after all. Meanwhile, things go from bad to worse when Joy and Sadness get accidentally locked out of the command centre, and must wander through a surreal landscape that might have been designed by Salvador Dali in order to find their way back. Along the road they meet Riley's almost forgotten imaginary friend, and learn some lessons about the fleeting, ever-evolving nature of childhood.
All of which, you'll agree, is about as high concept as it gets, but with skill, discipline and extraordinary imagination, Pete Docter and his colleagues manage to make it work. For one thing, Inside Out is beautifully designed. The command centre is surrounded by 'identity islands', towering, tottering structures that represent various parts of Riley's personality, such as friendship, love of family etc. But after Joy and Sadness get locked out and Fear, Anger and Disgust take over, chaos reigns and the islands start collapsing disastrously, one by one. In fact, it's the warm front of childhood meeting the cold clouds of early puberty.
The whole memory ball idea is very pleasing: when you look into the glowing orbs you can see joyous moments from Riley's early days, but whenever poor old Sadness touches them, they turn blue and fade.
As in all great Pixar films, there's plenty of humour too, and at various points we take hilarious journeys into the minds of Riley's parents, and a lovestruck pubescent boy. The voice acting is magnificent, led by Amy Poehler, who's excellent as the frantically cheerful Joy, and there's something genuinely poignant about Richard Kind's Bing Bong, the imaginary friend who dreads the oblivion of finally being forgotten.
Inside Out (G, 104mins) 4 stars