In the mind of a little girl

Pixar's Inside Out features the core emotions of (from left) Anger, Disgust, Joy, Fear and Sadness vying for influence over an 11-year-old girl’s mind.
Pixar's Inside Out features the core emotions of (from left) Anger, Disgust, Joy, Fear and Sadness vying for influence over an 11-year-old girl’s mind.PHOTO: DISNEY PIXAR

Inside Out imagines an 11-year-old's emotions as real characters

Rather than focusing on fairy-tale princesses, superheroes or cutesy animals, the new animated movie Inside Out takes the unusual step of going inside the mind of an 11-year-old girl and imagining her emotions as real characters (which, yes, are cute).

The film - which opens in Singapore tomorrow - has been praised by critics for its unusual storyline and refreshing take on the importance of heeding negative feelings.

These were some of the reasons two of Hollywood's top comedy stars, Amy Poehler and Mindy Kaling, leapt at the chance to voice the emotions of Joy and Disgust in the hit movie by the acclaimed animation studio Pixar, which has made more than US$689 million (S$969 million) worldwide since premiering in the United States in June.

Poehler tells Life and other press in Los Angeles how bowled over she was by the premise alone, of the girl's internal struggle when she moves to a new city.

"I couldn't believe the setting was the mind of an 11-year-old girl. I loved that,'' says the 43-year-old Golden Globe winning star of television comedy Parks And Recreation (2009-2015).

"It's so badass that Pixar was like, 'You want to see some dangerous stuff? Why don't you go inside someone's mind? Do you wanna see stuff like a terrain that you live in every day, but know nothing about how it looks? We'll tell you.'"

She praises its writer-director Pete Docter - who was also behind the hit 2009 animated feature Up - for painting a complex mental landscape inspired by neuroscientific and psychological research into how the mind works (see other story).

"Pixar doesn't patronise its young audience and it doesn't underestimate their intelligence. So it keeps raising the bar and also assumes that you and your big brain and your big heart are going to show up,'' says the actress.

Kaling, the 36-year-old star and creator of sitcom The Mindy Project (2012-present), was fascinated by the ideas the film highlights, including the notion that memories are strongly coloured by feelings.

"The idea of a core memory - that's something that Pete, Jonas Rivera (a producer) and Ronnie del Carmen (a co-writer) are, with this movie, making people say and talk about. Because before they named it, I didn't know it. But there are things such as core memories and what's so enjoyable about the movie is that as you're watching, you're like, 'Thank you for putting a name on that.'"

Both comediennes say it was a joy to work with the talents at Pixar, the award-winning studio behind hits such as Finding Nemo (2003), the Toy Story (1995, 1999 & 2010) and Monsters, Inc (2001 & 2013) movies, The Incredibles (2004) and Wall-E (2008).

They were particularly impressed by how collaborative the animators were.

Poehler says: "I have a theory that with the exception of a few eccentric geniuses, most talented people are good collaborators because they are not threatened by other people's good ideas as they have a million of them."

Docter and co-writer del Carmen were thus happy to have her tweak the character of Joy, she reveals. "My fear was that Joy would get annoying. So we talked a lot about that and pitched jokes and other ways to walk that line where she isn't driving you crazy.''

When asked which core emotion they would want to play other than their own character, none of the key cast - which includes comedians Bill Hader as Fear, Lewis Black as Anger and actress Phyllis Smith as Sadness - went for the obvious and picked Joy.

Instead, almost everyone wanted to play Anger, including Poehler.

"No one wants to play Joy, isn't it interesting?" says the actress and Golden Globes host.

"I'd like to play Anger. For me, that feels like the one that, next to Joy and Sadness, is kind of in the driver's seat. And Anger is just so funny."

Echoing critics who laud the film for its subtle feminist message about how girls are often pressured to always be happy, Kaling points out that "it's not necessarily socially acceptable to be angry as a woman".

"And so that would be a fun thing to be able to do.''

Playing Disgust was cathartic too, though.

Kaling adds: "The character Disgust has a lot of the qualities of a very impatient, judgmental adolescent girl and… she just says the things I say on a really bad day and the things I really want to say, but then don't."

And if Anger and Disgust seem like unlikely characters to look up to, Poehler and Kaling confess that some of their own animated favourites may seem a little odd, too.

"I loved Cruella de Vil," Poehler says, referring to the antagonist in Disney's 101 Dalmatians movies (1961 & 1996).

"She's a funny character. A meaty character part for a woman. May we all get to our Cruella de Vil stage - in a manner of months," quips the star, who says she watches more animated features now that she has children - six-year-old Archibald and five-year-old Abel, her sons with her ex-husband, actor Will Arnett, 45.

Kaling, who with The Mindy Project became the first South Asian showrunner on American television, admits she found it hard to identify with Disney characters "when I was younger, since I bear no passing resemblance to any princesses".

"But I really liked Robin Hood as portrayed by a fox," she says of the 1973 Disney flick. "I thought he was dashing and, while he was not human, I had a crush on him. Is that okay to say?"

She and Poehler - who have both had success as producers and writers - say they would love to create more content that, like Inside Out, will resonate with young girls.

Kaling points out that her co-star has already taken a step in that direction with Smart Girls, a website and online community Poehler co-founded to empower and support young women.

"Amy, with Smart Girls, is doing something that's so wonderful. She has six full-time jobs, but what I love is that she wants to give young girls a voice. I think it's great."

Poehler says: "It's really cool to have young women like what you do. I really like young women and I love that age of a girl that Riley is - that moment before you've been thrown into the snake pit, when you're just ready for everything, and boys are the same way, too.

"I feel like, as an adult, you're just trying to always get back to that great time - it's like the magic hour. I think we both have a lot of love for that age and it's really nice if anything we do resonates with people that age."

  • Inside Out opens in Singapore tomorrow and is reviewed on Page D5.
A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on August 26, 2015, with the headline 'IN THE MIND OF A LITTLE GIRL'. Print Edition | Subscribe