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Pixar's 'Inside Out': The Importance of Being Sad

19/07/2015 19:14 BST | Updated 17/07/2016 10:59 BST

O the mind, mind has mountains; cliffs of fall

Frightful, sheer, no-man-fathomed.

(Gerard Manley Hopkins)

In the mad feudal kingdom of the blockbuster, where the franchise mainstream goes round and round like a moat clotted on its own conservatism, Pixar is the gentle genius, the cagey goose allowed to just get on with it and squeeze one out every few years. What lovely eggs, on the whole, this unfenced existence has produced. The consecutive trio of Wall-E, Up and Toy Story 3 is as impressive a run from any production stable in cinema history. The quality of the next three dipped (noble failure Brave, greedy sequel Cars 2, funderwhelming Monsters University), but then out pops Inside Out. Even by Pixar's heaven-storming standards, it is their strangest, cleverest, most tonally daring yet; it is also, already, one of the great American films about childhood.

The film's heroine-and-setting is Riley, a chirpy twelve-year-old who loves ice hockey as much as she hates broccoli. Her parents (like at the start of Spirited Away) move away from home for work reasons, in their case from Riley's beloved Minnesota to San Francisco. She struggles to settle in, both at school and at home, and her mood swings are told through the five anthropomorphic emotions in her head: Joy, Sadness, Anger, Disgust and Fear. Each, like the Seven Dwarves, has their own personality. Amy Poehler is basically Lesley Knope as Joy, a relentlessly chipper team player. Joy's diametric opposite Sadness is voiced with shy warmth by The Office's Phyllis Smith, alongside a third Greg Daniels stablemate, Mindy Kaling, as Disgust. (It's a delight how neatly the sharp, playful spirit of Parks and Recreation and The Office has seeped into bankable cinema, with Chris Pratt's rise the apogee). As Joy and Sadness wrestle for control of Riley's moods during a particularly tough day at school, they are catapulted into the deeper confines of her psyche. They must make it back to HQ before Riley (guided only by Anger, Disgust and Fear) follows through with her drastic plan to recapture her younger, happier self (no spoilers here).

For starters, the visual lacework of the film is dizzyingly intricate, an infinity-library of dreams, memories and phobias, a double helix of authenticity and invention. Pixar consulted psychologists to help design Riley's mind in a scientifically accurate way: short-term memories made during the day are converted into long-term memories during sleep (as is believed to happen), and the curved shelves of Long Term Memory mimic the contours on the cerebral cortex of the brain's outer surface. This psycho-legitimacy is overlaid with flights of surrealism Dalí himself would twinkle at (Dalí and Walt Disney once made a short together called Destino). Vast bridged islands represent Riley's defining characteristics, like her love of ice hockey and her goofiness; these pillars pump personality into her decisions with varied levels of conviction, and crumble if she grows out of them. The train of thought is an actual train that moods and memories board and leave. Dreams are made in the mind's own weary film studio, a Buñuelian nod to cinema's ability to manipulate, distort, and quench fantasies. There are unseasonably clever gags about abstraction and fragmentation and déjà vu, thickly accoutred romps in the highest terrace of consciousness. Cars 2 this is not.

If this complexity sounds too smart for its own good, the cinematic equivalent of carting your child round the Tate when they've barely learnt to speak, it should be said Inside Out is funny and thrilling and wears a trim, throwaway savvy, the sort of cross-generational irreverence you get on The Simpsons or Sesame Street. There's a naughty self-awareness: Anger at one point suggests "we lock ourselves in our room and use that one swear word we know. It's a good one!" When Fear is on control desk nightwatch, he rolls his eyes at the predictability of the nightmares ("Let me guess, she forgot to put on her pants"). The rapid-rattle insights into other characters' minds at the end, including a disenchanted clown ("six years of drama school... for this"), shows how much hay Pixar made just in Riley's mind and how much they could make with others'. There's even a little skewer at San Francisco's hipster culture with the pizzeria that has a choice of just one pizza a day.

All of this slightly reminded me of Silicon Valley, the gloriously intelligent, likeable sitcom about five symbiotic cohabitants trying to make it in San Francisco and a timely anti-Entourage (not to kick a man when it's down, but please watch if you haven't already the Entourage cast's bewilderedly unapologetic, legs-on-the-pouffe round-table with The Guardian about the film's sexism). Inside Out's lightness of touch goes hand-in-hand with a sort of gentle feminism (the three main characters - Joy, Sadness and Riley - are female and Riley's only hint of a love interest is nicely subverted). Compare that with fellow labyrinth-of-the-mind dream-feast Inception, an unprecedented cathedral of creativity, but so male and portentous and my God does it take itself seriously.

The most striking element is how moving Inside Out is. I cried three times, two of which involved Riley's imaginary friend Bing Bong (a deliberately confused cross between a cat, an elephant and a dolphin). He becomes Joy and Sadness's guide around Riley's dustier psychic recesses and a metaphor for her younger self. This is a dense, cathartic, mature illustration of growing up that champions the vitality of melancholy. At first Sadness just drifts about and gets in the way, touching memories she shouldn't. But she becomes increasingly useful and cheers Bing Bong up much more effectively than Joy. Crying, as Sadness says, "helps me slow down and obsess over the weight of life's problems". Her virtuoso performance at the end, just thinking about which makes me want to weep, is a gorgeously introspective complement to the pop-cultural party line to let it go or shake it off. It's alright not to let go immediately. Keep it, dredge it in, swim in it, savour the shoreline air, and (if you can) try and learn from it (or not). "In order to enjoy life", wrote Nabokov in Speak, Memory, "we should not enjoy it too much." The film organises raids on one's sense of lost childhood, assaults that scrape the thatch of soul behind the larynx: the erosion of Riley's capacity for silliness when her dad is trying to cheer her up with monkey impressions is one of them. It's an adagio of inarticulacy, a well-tempered sonata of bad tempers, up there with Boyhood and (my favourite children's book of all) Bad Mood Bear.

Like memories and people, the film isn't perfect. There's a sag in the middle, an iffy family-argument-as-war sequence that strays into fatigued gender stereotypes, and Joy and Sadness get lost for about ten minutes too long. But it never feels sentimental, and it's even aware of its own ability to manipulate (hence the dreams-as-cinema-studio motif). Pixar, for all its cute-and-cerebral charm, is as well-oiled a PR machine as any (the Inside Out five are currently flogging the latest Sky broadband bundle), but it's somehow more palatable than most contemporary brands.

Back in the day, nostalgia was seen as a disease (there was an "outbreak" in the Russian army in 1733). If this were the case now, Hollywood would be gripped with a nervous malady. Ever since the superhero adaptation became the all-consuming American art form (Birdman pecked at this idea, but told it from too privileged a perspective), studios have plunged into their own mythology, placed the surest bets and trussed them up as films. Of course they were going to make another Jurassic Park, of course they were going to make another Terminator, of course there's a new Mission Impossible ("Rogue Nation"). You can understand why people whose jobs depend on it greenlight the safest gambles, but as a viewer it's that much harder to care about the characters, or even treat it as a "film" (or, God forbid, a piece of art), when you know it's a giant lumbering bastard of a calculated financial investment. Please make money, please! It also makes those who take a punt on characters and stories created from scratch even more commendable.

That's why I love that Pixar would allow a premise as weird, emotionally nuanced and shamelessly sophisticated as Inside Out's. What a wonderful, reasonable, unusual message it has, the most shaded of happy endings. Tomm Moore, director of the lushly ambitious Irish animation Song of the Sea, said in this month's Sight and Sound, "Is there such a category as family arthouse? I worry that we're seen as somehow worthy and improving, like the cinema equivalent of broccoli." Inside Out is broccoli that tastes like ice cream, nutritious comfort-cinema. With Looking and Silicon Valley it's part of a San Franciscan crucible of decency, subtlety and originality. It's a celebration of imagination-as-empathy, where sadness is not only a character but a hero; it's a film about the melodrama of pre-puberty and the formation of personality, where maturity constitutes the acceptance of change. It's one of the great artistic representations of the young mind, its mountains thickening with the thunder of memory, a point-counterpoint to the minimalism of Up's magisterial life-in-a-montage.

But it's particularly a fable about nostalgia, or first reaching the age where you have anything to be nostalgic about. It's so tempting to cling on or loiter in the lagoons of the past, but to be defined by it is unnatural, unhealthy and the least constructive kind of inward. The Hollywood tastemakers could learn from this. If only they left alone the dilapidated pillars of previous successes they might, in the words of the nineteenth century French nostalgia-doctor Hippolyte Petit, "find new joys to erase the domination of the old." By letting go, Disney have made their finest film since The Lion King.