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Inside the trauma of childhood change

  • 25 June 2015

Inside Out (PG). Directors: Pete Docter, Ronaldo Del Carmen. Starring: Amy Poehler, Phyllis Smith, Richard Kind, Bill Hader, Lewis Black, Mindy Kaling, Kaitlyn Dias, Diane Lane, Kyle MacLachlan. 102 minutes

If you think the premise of animation juggernaut Pixar's latest feature sounds familiar, chances are you at some point watched or were at least aware of the short-lived 1990s sitcom Herman's Head. Both the new film and that old TV show set out to look inside the mind of their respective heroes — in Herman's Head, a 30-something research assistant; in Inside Out, a preteen girl named Riley (Dias) — and personify aspects of their personality as characters vying for control.

Thankfully, that is where the similarity ends. Where Herman's Head was pure lowbrow, Inside Out takes the clever premise and expands it to the kinds of entertaining and poignant proportions that are the hallmarks of Pixar's very best. Co-director Pete Docter had a hand in some of the studio's more outlandish expeditions (Monsters Inc., WALL.E, Up) and again demonstrates both the endless invention that elevated those films, and the profound human insight that grounded them.

Riley has enjoyed a largely happy childhood in the American Midwest. In the 'headquarters' of her conscious mind, Joy (Poehler), Sadness (Smith), Fear (Hader), Anger (Black) and Disgust (Kaling) each take their turn at the control panel — but Joy is undoubtedly in charge. With manic dedication, she tries to keep Riley in a state of general happiness. As a result she has overseen a prolific accumulation of happy memories that have coloured Riley's temperament and world view.

Coloured, literally: in a fun conceit that gives substance to abstract ideas, memories take the form of spheres that are colour-coded according to the emotional state in which they were acquired. Sometimes, an extra-luminous bulb appears, and these 'core memories' fuel massive island-like engines that function as key inputs to Riley's personality. In Riley's mind, Joy's yellow orbs abound, and the core memories have all been happy. But a move with her family to San Francisco is set to change all of that.

Inside Out is packed with ideas and reasonably faithful to psychological principles, despite its fun and fantastical veneer. The 'headquarters' control room is merely the gateway to the world of Riley's mind: we also visit the film studio where Riley's dreams are produced, and the surreal landscape of 'abstract thought'; we meet Riley's displaced imaginary friend, Bing Bong (Kind) (part elephant,