Having experienced something of a creative lull in the past few years with the likes of Cars 2, Brave and Monsters University, Pixar this summer reclaimed their position as the world's pre-eminent animation house with the extraordinary Inside Out. Ambitious, visually stunning, funny and moving in the manner of Pixar's greatest movies, Inside Out touches on what is possibly their most universal idea to date: the very nature of emotions and how they govern our everyday behaviour. Best described as a psychological coming of age story for family audiences, the film takes place within the head of a 12-year-old girl named Riley, where her emotions Joy, Sadness, Fear, Anger and Disgust are attempting to steer her through a difficult move from the American Midwest to a new life in San Francisco. When Riley's primary emotion Joy (voiced by Amy Poehler) ends up exiled to the recesses of Riley's mind along with Sadness (Phyllis Smith), a beautiful adventure unfolds that acts as a vivid metaphor for the growing up process.
Jaw-droppingly profound in the way that it casually observes the complexities of the human mind (happy memories are identified as golden orbs called 'core memories'; Riley's character is defined as a series of memory islands based around key facets of her personality), the film does a superb job in introducing young viewers to remarkably complex concepts. Directors Pete Docter and Ronaldo Del Carmen have undoubtedly fashioned one of Pixar's finest films to date and accompanying them is composer Michael Giacchino, who here contributes his fifth Pixar score following The Incredibles, Ratatouille, Up and Cars 2. Up (on which Giacchino collaborated with Docter) won the composer his first Oscar, largely due to the heartbreaking 'Married Life' montage at the start of the movie.
He now contributes a similarly imaginative score for Inside Out, one that, in-keeping with the film's themes of memory and identity, is perhaps more amorphous than his earlier Pixar scores, requiring a degree of effort on the part of the listener to tease out its various ideas. Needless to say there are memorable building blocks in the score, beginning with the theme for Poehler's effervescent emotion Joy in the opening track "Bundle of Joy". A featherweight, delightful, piano-led piece, it's intentionally sweet and innocent in its depiction of Joy's unerring happiness, weaving its way through the score and gradually gaining in complexity as Joy realises that Riley's move into adolescence involves an acceptance of seemingly negative emotion Sadness.
Nevertheless, its early incarnations are largely positive, including the madcap, percussive "Team Building" (where it sits alongside some amusing downbeat tuba playing representing Sadness, a theme reprised in "Overcoming Sadness") and the hauntingly nostalgic "Free Skating", one of the score's most memorable sections. "Nomanisone Island/National Movers" introduces another of the score's principal ideas, a coming-of-age piece representing the changes in Riley's life as she makes the move to a new city and school. A beautifully lyrical piece for piano, strings and assorted percussive instruments including glockenspiel, it initially brims with a sense of joyous optimism as her family make the move to the West coast, before gradually becoming more solemn as Riley realises the implications of such a change. The themes for Joy and Sadness compete with each other in "First Day of School" whilst "Riled Up" is plain old amusing mickey-mousing: militaristic snare drum rhythms creating a potent sense of anger bubbling up.
"Goofball No Longer" is a key turning point, beginning with some surprisingly dark action music as Joy and Sadness find themselves expelled from Riley's headquarters and stranded in another part of her mind. This is then followed with a sombre interpretation of Riley's theme, a clever musical representation of how Joy seemingly disappears from her consciousness during this crucial stage of her childhood. The mid-section of the score then introduces a host of new ideas, several of which are only stated once and which deceptively gives the impression of the score being haphazard. These include the chilled out jazz of "The Forgetters", the onslaught of percussion, sax and off-kilter woodwinds in "Abstract Thought", the surreal, Danny Elfman-esque organ/brass combo of "Dream a Little Nightmare" and the old-fashioned Hollywood bombast of "Dream Productions", depicting the vast factory where Riley's dreams are literally made into reality.
However, anchoring this seemingly chaotic collision of textures are Giacchino's core themes from the accordion-led interpretation of Joy's theme in "Memory Lanes" to a jaunty, whole-new theme for Riley's imaginary friend Bing Bong in "Chasing the Pink Elephant". In fact the latter piece becomes pivotal to the emotional development of the score as a whole, itself traversing its own distinct arc from upbeat happiness to eventual sadness. One of the film's key notions is the growth from childhood to maturity and this is embodied in Giacchino's musical treatment of Bing Bong, the theme moving from rambunctious, circus style madness in "Imagination Land" to tear-jerking heartache at the end of "Rainbow Flyer". In between Giacchino gradually ushers in a pervasive sense of melancholy that is crucial to the storyline, the haunting glass bowl sounds of "Down in the Dumps" eventually flowering into possibly the score's most moving cue, "Tears of Joy", a desolate reprisal of Riley's theme as Joy finally comes to terms with the importance of Sadness in the young girl's life. In between are some surprisingly moody and brooding cues reflecting the darker corners of Riley's cranium: "The Subconscious Basement" and "Escaping the Subconscious" demonstrate this perfectly.
As the score moves towards its suitably emotional conclusion, Giacchino re-introduces more frenetic music in "We Can Still Stop Her" (preceded with a lovely undulating piano/ostinato string arrangement), the dramatic "Rainbow Flyer" that moulds Joy's theme as a dynamic action piece (before ending on that aforementioned devastating note) and "Chasing Down Sadness". Everything then comes to a head in the powerful climactic cue "Joy Turns to Sadness/A Growing Personality", which at seven minutes allows the various thematic ideas to breathe and mature. Joy's theme blossoms into a lovely string section to depict the moment where Riley finally comes of age, her emotions having reached a point of stability as she enters a new phase of her life. It's lovely, poignant music and enriches the impact of the film no end.
The track then ends on the same note of sunny optimism with which the score began, leading into the charming finale "The Joy of Credits", summarising the soundtrack's principal themes and taking us on an emotional rollercoaster from happiness to madness to sadness and back again. There's also a hilarious little treat right at the very end in the form of the nagging ear-worm jingle "Triple Dent Gum", composed by Giacchino specifically for the movie and which forms the basis of one of its funniest jokes. In what has been a remarkable year for Michael Giacchino, Inside Out is perhaps the most challenging of his scores to appreciate as a stand-alone listening experience. That might seem like an odd thing to say given the film's family-friendly approach but the music's fluid nature is initially tricky to get a handle on, seeming to favour texture and movement above distinct ideas. Certainly, it lacks the enjoyable pastiche nature of The Incredibles, the lyrical romanticism of Ratatouille or the memorable themes of Up.
However, repeat listenings ultimately reveal the brilliance of Giacchino's approach: this is a score that simulates the experience of consciousness, circulating around a host of ideas that gradually come into focus over the course of the score. In this sense Giacchino's music is perfectly tailored to the film, only revealing a truly distinct sense of itself in the later stages as Riley finally comes to terms with her own personality. For the most part the score appears somewhat slapdash and intentionally manic, zipping around with a sense of energy and replicating the complicated inner workings of Riley's mind. Ultimately though, it reveals emotional depth and a big heart, something that reinforces Giacchino's skill as a musical storyteller, and his position as one of the finest film composers of the modern age.