Americans are awfully good at managing huge logistical challenges. They had the money, the ambition and the drive to land on the moon. They built the Hoover Dam. And, of course, Americans – in the collective form of Pixar – produced the first digitally animated feature.
In recent years, the studio's material has sagged just a little. But we needn't have worried. Pete Docter, director of the near-perfect Up, has delivered another winner with this comedy built around creative personification of the emotions.
The same bittersweet regrets that fuelled the last Toy Story film surge through its boldly coloured veins. Indeed, it's quite possible that young people will enjoy the meditations on childhood's end as much as their parents.
The framing story, concerning Riley, a young girl coping with a move to San Francisco, nods politely and usefully towards Hayao Miyazaki's Spirited Away.
Docter and co-director Ronnie del Carmen have found amusing shapes and perfect voices for the emotions within: a lanky, bow-tied Fear (Bill Hader), emo-pullovered Sadness (Phyllis Smith), flaming red Anger (Lewis Black) and unstoppable Joy (only Amy Poehler would do). The script abounds with zingers.
Yet there is, throughout Inside Out, a sense that the American obsession with can- do logistics has been allowed to overpower the project to the point of suffocation.
It's not an entirely fresh high concept. The TV series Herman's Head and the British comic strip The Numskulls both played personification games inside characters' heads without worrying too much about (ahem) internal logic.
The writers of Inside Out seem, by way of contrast, obsessed with adumbrating every administrative and procedural eccentricity of this hidden world.
The forward control room is straightforward enough. Americans being as optimistic as they are ambitious, Joy gets to run the operation. (If this were an Irish film, Wry Resignation might be at the helm.)
Joy and her less perky colleagues work to advance their young charge’s needs much in the way that the toys did in Pixar’s first feature.
Riley is troubled at her new school and requires all their help. She misses the midwest and its snow. She can’t make sense of the hilly city she now inhabits. (One slightly overcooked joke has her apparently mistaking talk of San Francisco’s gay “bear” scene for a pondering of the North American mammal.)
Through it all, the film’s admirable core message is to the fore: we need to engage with negative emotions as well as positive ones to lead a fulfilled life.
So far, so clear. Now, ponder this. All the memories in this version of our brains are contained in colour-coded spheres that, as night falls, are dispatched into storage vaults. Certain, more important of these recollections are designated “core memories” and are redirected to a vital hub within the system.
Something called the Train of Thought occasionally trundles along on its way to an apparently gratuitous pun. There is, in an unhappy corner of the territory, an area called the Memory Dump where unloved spheres go to rot. What now? None of this is, however, quite so perplexing as the “Personality Islands” that (unless I’ve got this wrong) are powered by the core memories.
At times, Inside Out comes across like an animated instruction manual for a mechanised network of unimaginable (and sadly uninteresting) complexity. Nobody needs to know any of this. Few will care.
Thankfully, the adventures happening within this often- inconsistent imagined world remain funny, moving and surprising. Not since Up has Pixar offered reassurance that the company is still at home to such original thinking.
Mind you, the best jokes in Inside Out do come in the snippets over the closing credits. If we must have a sequel (and we almost certainly must), let's see more of the madness within the brains of cats and dogs.
Very much worth seeing. Very much worth staying until the very end.