As good as cartoons – sorry, animated movies – have become over the last 15 years, I’m a firm believer that adults shouldn’t really be going to the cinema to see them without a child for company. And I mean a real child, not just an inner child, cute though that concept may be.
It’s certainly the one that Pixar has taken aim at. That genius company, now owned by Disney, found a way to create brilliant animations with such perfect scripts that worked the emotions so dextrously as to enchant children and also make adults (and film critics) cry. Films such as Toy Story 3, Wall-E and Up awoke that inner kid and made us all remember how we felt when Bambi’s mother died.
But I think they have gone a step further with their latest film, a sublime masterpiece called Inside Out. Finally, here’s a film not only targeted at our inner child but actually about the inner child. Indeed, it mostly takes place: in a child.
Directed by Peter Docter, Inside Out is the most startling work of imagination I’ve seen this year. It is the story of an 11-year-old girl named Riley whose family are uprooting to San Fransisco, so her emotions are in turmoil as she leaves friends and school behind in Minnesota.
We go inside her young mind to witness her world through these warring emotions: Joy, Sadness, Disgust, Fear and Anger. Each emotion is beautifully characterised (and voiced) and they all jostle for control of Riley’s brain at a kind of mission control desk looking out over a brain-scape designed like a gleaming factory plant of senses, memories and thoughts. (This vast interior layout, it occurred to me, is not unlike that of a classic Hollywood studio lot: an original dream factory.)
The chief tussle is between the relentlessly peppy Joy (Amy Poehler) and the fuzzy, furry cloud of Sadness (Phyllis Smith) and, crucially, both of these get a jolly good run for their money as the homesick Riley succumbs to her first pangs of depression, a scary peek into the teenage world just around the corner. It results in a film that probes the depths of delicate and turbulent young emotions like few movies have ever managed. I thought of ET on several occasions.
Mom (Diane Lane) and Dad (Kyle MacLachlan) get their turn, too, in one particularly genius scene around the dinner table, in which Mom’s emotions reveal her inner-most thoughts while Dad’s little inner workers struggle to keep up with his wife and sulking daughter. In these moments, I was reminded more of Woody Allen’s iconic sperm sketch in Everything You Wanted to Know About Sex, to which this surely owes some debt, as well as to the 1960s sci-fi Fantastic Voyage.
Inside Out is bright, brilliant and very funny. It even has time to get surreal and tap into the darker recesses of imagination, being brave enough, too, to play with different styles of art as Riley’s childhood memories crumble away, including a final appearance for her imaginary childhood friend, a somewhat creepy clown called Bing Bong.
Yet what elevates the film to classic status is a clarity of direction at which one can only marvel – as fiendishly complicated as each scene gets, the audience is never for a moment confused as to whose brain we’re inside, or what level of consciousness we’re working on. One might say, it has an impeccable internal logic. The outstanding music score from Oscar-winner Michael Giacchino is also key, with its subtle little themes and twinkling motifs to guide us.
Meanwhile the conflicting emotions and the preciousness of memory provide constant tension and drama to keep audiences guessing and gripped, awaiting the next surprise, visual or emotional.
I first saw this at the Cannes Film Festival last May, half way through the usual array of gruelling art-house movies from brilliant but self-indulgent auteurs. Inside Out had the critics there in secret raptures, a wave of pure bonheur emanating from the big screen and filling that bastion of intellectual film-watching, the giant Lumiere Theatre.
A cartoon could never really win the Palme d’Or but, whisper it, Inside Out was the best movie of the whole festival. And every inner child knew it.