Pixar are not shy of challenging their audiences. For a studio that makes family features, it’s notable that their films deal with bereavement (Up), fear of being replaced (Toy Story), fear of death (Toy Story 3), mid-life crises (The Incredibles), and the mass murder of a mother and her children (opening scene of Finding Nemo, take a bow as most disturbing kids opener – ever). And their new movie Inside Out (2015) is no exception.
Following the life of Riley, a young girl moving with her parents from leafy Minneapolis to down-town San Francisco, the film is split between her own experiences and that of the emotions inside her head. These are personified as Fear, Anger, Disgust, Sadness and Joy – the last of whom is something of a leader and sees it as her job to keep Riley happy… which she could if the other emotions would just stop getting in the way. The film is a masterpiece, and if you haven’t seen it you should stop reading this and go do so immediately. Hitting the emotional beats of the Toy Story trilogy and Up, it might just be Pixar’s most accomplished, resonant, and moving film yet.
The thing that’s really challenging about Inside Out though isn’t just its incredible emotional power, but its abstract concept. And by setting over half the film inside the mind of its protagonist, the movie bears striking similarities to that other metaphysical head-scratcher, Christopher Nolan’s Inception (2010).
To start with, both films are thematically about going home. In Inside Out, Riley is displaced by her move to San Fran and is considering running away back to Minneapolis, whilst in Inception Cobb (DiCaprio) is desperately trying to return from exile to his kids. The fact that these home-coming quests are played out both in the “real” world, and on a metaphysical level inside the mind, makes the similarities all the more startling.
Both films are concerned with childhood memories. Joy just wants Riley to be happy, and is trying to return her core memories to the HQ inside her head. In Inception, Cobb is also trying to implant a childhood memory, albeit a counterfeit one, into the mind of Fischer (Cillian Murphy). By getting him to believe his father kept a paper windmill he had made as a boy, it brings Fischer cathartic closure on his own upbringing.
Both films include scenes where characters who are dreaming must be woken up by “a kick”: in Inception, that takes numerous forms, such as reversing a car off a bridge, cutting the cable on an elevator, or leaping from a falling building. In Inside Out, it’s by causing Riley to have a bad dream and scaring her awake.
Both films deal with a netherworld at the bottom of the subconscious. In Inception it’s “limbo”, a wrecked landscape below a dream within a dream within a dream etc. In Inside Out, it’s a dark pit where Riley’s old memories go to be forgotten. And in both films our heroes must escape from these low places, rising up and out on their journeys home.
And then there’s the set design. In both films, the mind is filled with architecture which starts to crumble as the plot progresses, signalling the psychic disharmony happening inside the characters themselves.
Like I said, Pixar have got a reputation for challenging their audiences. And if Inception was billed as a thinking-person’s-action-movie, then Inside Out dares to challenge our kids to think too. Not that it’s for just children of course, but for anyone who was a child once, and isn’t quite ready to forget.