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Disney Pixar’s Inside Out is animated cinema’s brainstorm of the year, possibly the decade. It’s a brainstorm about a brainstorm. You need two umbrellas. One for the torrential virtuosity of form: the wit, craziness and visual invention you expect (or used to) from the makers of Monsters, Inc and Toy Story 1, 2, 3. Another brolly for the plot about the thunder and lightning conducted in our heads, hourly and daily, by the forces controlling our moods and feelings.
Like 11-year-old Riley we know they’re up there. Transplanted to San Francisco with mum and job-transfer dad, the Minnesotan girl pines for home. So the HR team in her head — Joy and Sadness, plus Fear, Disgust and Anger — go into scramble mode to ensure that a healthy balance of emotions isn’t toppled by despair. These mood boffins are a zany bunch. Joy (Amy Poehler) is a vim-full majorette in blinding yellow. Sadness (Phyllis Smith) is blue and roly-poly, like a TV couch potato gently irradiated by sloth. The show-stealer of the rest is red-all-over Anger (Lewis Black), whose head can burst into flame like a volcano.
We keep cutting between Riley’s story — new home, new school, new and daily thoughts of running away — and the controllers in her cranium. Then two of them, for best of reasons, run free from HQ. For most of Inside Out’s middle, Joy roves across Riley’s mental landscape, with Sadness in tow like Sancho Panza, trying to save the girl’s buried thoughts and important but endangered memory clusters. The latter are giant islands of bric-a-brac, pedestalled above the chasm of the unconscious. The former are in the unconscious, including a Fingal’s Cave of broccoli, the film’s running horror motif. (Riley’s low-point encounter on Surface Earth is a pizzeria serving only broccoli pizza.)
The film’s midsection is a bit Barnum and Bailey. Did we need the elephant Bing Bong, one wacko too many? Or the OTT cataclysms and chasm crossings? Never mind. Inside Out is hummingly funny and clever for 99 seconds of every hundred. Director/co-writer Pete Docter, who gave us Up and Monsters, Inc, makes every member of Team Emotion as human as the humans and more screwball. (“You’ll get lost!”, Sadness warns adventuring Joy. “Think positive,” Joy responds. Sadness: “I’m positive you’ll get lost!”) Yet every time we return to Riley’s reality, it’s no comedown, more a poignant re-docking on Planet Home: a place where the softer, sepia-nuanced colours suggest the old picture albums that the past must be, and even the present, for those busy “upstairs” in our heads, planning and prepping our futures.