Saturday 8 August 2015

Headgames: "Inside Out"

Ever amenable to their audience, Pixar have made it possible to show up thirty minutes late for Inside Out and still have one of the best experiences you'll have in a cinema all year. A full 25 minutes of trailers is, of course, a given in this age when multiplex chains have come to regard their patrons as suggestible lab rats, but equally skippable is the short film Lava, which serves only as a demonstration of the limits of animated anthropomorphism. A deal of picturesque, state-of-the-art pixellation has been expended upon a perilously thin and cutesy tale that strives to get sentient human beings to feel for a fucking volcano. It's almost unimaginable that a short could get so many things wrong in such a small space of time, but all the evidence is right there on screen before your eyes and in your ears: the unforgivably sappy song that strives to establish some rhyme between "love" and "lava", the move - common in live-action features, but unprecedently terrible in this field - to pair its old, fat Robert Maxwell-like volcano with a hot young Q'orianka Kilcher-looking babe volcano. If you explode at all, it'll be in rage or vomit, not tears.

The main feature, as you may have heard, is something else besides. As it draws us inside the head of 11-year-old Riley, making the formative move from her childhood home to the city, and introduces us to the emotional avatars (Joy, Sadness, Fear, Anger and Disgust) pushing her buttons and pulling her levers, you can't help but be struck by the manner in which Pete Docter's film takes an insanely complex set-up and makes it appear as simple as a game of marbles - which seems as good a definition of art as any. Within the now-standard flurry of onscreen activity, subtle points keep being raised about the processes by which we think and feel. While the film's conception of the differences between male and female emotional responses (the one in the moment, patient, empathetic, the other distracted by sport) heads in the direction of caricature, there's something piercing in the film's selection of driving emotions. Four traditionally negative emotions, only one positive: what Inside Out illustrates is just how difficult it is to be truly happy, not a topic usually discussed in bright, shiny multiplex entertainments.

Individuating these emotions through bold use of colour and note-perfect comedy voice casting - and we might ask ourselves what's more inspired here: Amy Poehler, Parks and Rec's ray of sunshine, as Joy, or Lewis Black, The Daily Show's go-to grouch, as Anger? - Docter makes real and tangible what could have remained abstract concepts: they're like the dolls therapists use to make patients' emotions' manifest. Of course, they're also supremely merchandisable product, but Inside Out strikes me as a project that has only benefitted from being plugged into some greater corporate superstructure: I started to imagine the many in-house screenings designed to ensure audiences young and old could keep up with the action, or to test whether a cut that skewed away from Joy and Sadness (Phyllis Smith, from The Office) towards Fear, Anger and Disgust still played, and above all else to ensure the film made not just narrative but emotional sense. 

Certain sequences, however, suggest the animators are telling this story to amuse themselves - always a hallmark of the better Pixar films. That's perhaps most obvious in the mid-movie diversion through the Chamber of Abstract Thought, which briefly transforms Joy and Sadness into flat, non-figurative shapes. More ruthless producers would doubtless insist this boldly tangential squiggle be cut for not immediately advancing the narrative; left in, it serves as the Pixar equivalent of a Simpsons couch gag, an authorial flourish that pushes an established set of characters in new, funny, striking directions. Such doodles revitalise that quest-narrative template that has grown tired and resistible through overuse in so many tuppenny-ha'penny CG animations: every sequence here has by definition to work on at least two levels (internally and externally), so as to bolster the parallel between the worlds collapsing in our heroine's headspace and a childhood crumbling to dust.

It sounds bleak, but Joy's very Knope-like attempts to support these toppling infrastructures most often induce a dizzying sugar high: the breakneck passage through a literal dream factory (its walls adorned with posters for recent productions: "I Can Fly!", "Somebody's Chasing Me") returns us to the frenzied self-reflexivity of Docter's Monsters, Inc., and reminds us that the best Pixar films exist at that intersection of business and busyness. (Even here, we find a choice gag: Fear's sudden outburst "Boo, pick a plotline!", exactly the note a desk-bound producer would venture at this juncture.) A lot of thought has gone into every frame, but this is a project that can't avoid engaging all of the emotions: just as some claim Disney's Bambi bolstered the green movement of the 1970s by filling its ranks with those marked for life by seeing the protagonist's mum picked off as a child, so I wonder whether Inside Out might, in years to come, overturn decades of Big Pharma lobbying with regard to the prescription of psychiatric medicine. Sadness is here diagnosed as not a personality flaw, but an essential feature of our internal make-up, and - sometimes, just sometimes - a bittersweet reward for letting earlier happinesses go. Like the heroine's imaginary friend Bing Bong, this film cries gumdrops.

Inside Out is now playing in cinemas nationwide. 

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