Why do we think what we think and feel what we feel? What determines who we are and how we respond to life’s circumstances? How can the same memory be joyous sometimes and sad at others? Where do ideas come from? What happens to the things we’ve forgotten? Why does the jingle from that chewing gum commercial always get stuck in your head? Why are dreams so weird? Just what, exactly, is going on in people’s heads? These are some of the many questions Pixar’s latest film, Inside Out, sets out to explore. The result is one of the most charming, heartfelt, and poignant films the studio has ever created, as well as one of the most creative movies of all time. It will not only make you laugh and cry, but then it’ll make you stop and consider why you just laughed and cried.
Inside Out tells the story of Riley, an 11-year-old girl from Minnesota, who loves playing hockey, spending time with her friends and her parents, and is generally a happy, “normal” girl. Her life is upended, however, when her father takes a new job in San Francisco, and she’s forced to move away from everything that she loves. She tries to make the best of things, looking with hope and excitement at the possibility of making new friends, a new home, and a new life, but gradually the reality of her new situation starts to wear her down. Between having to sleep on the floor while their moving van is missing, her friends back home replacing her with new friends, the awkwardness of a new school, her father becoming too busy with his new job to pay her any attention, and the constant pressure put on her to “be happy,” Riley starts to lose herself, slipping into quiet hopelessness, lashing out in anger, and surrendering to despair, as her parents become more worried about her.
Inside Out may be Riley’s story, she’s not its main character at all, she’s actually the film’s setting. While these many changes are happening outside of Riley, we watch as event shake up the way things are run in her brain. Riley’s actions are governed by her five emotions, Joy, Sadness, Anger, Fear, and Disgust, and given Riley’s life as a generally happy child, Joy is the group’s leader. Riley’s emotions run her mind from headquarters, watching as events unfold and guiding her actions via a console where they can control her actions. New memories are formed throughout the day, appearing as glass spheres colored based on which emotion with which they are associated, to be sent to long term memory storage as Riley sleeps. Riley’s personality is dictated by five islands each representing one of the main branches of who Riley is and what she loves (family, friends, honesty, hockey, and “goofball” island), each of which is tied to a glowing core memory from her life, all associated with Joy, which were formed from key events in her life and which reside in a special pedestal in the center of Riley’s mental headquarters.
Riley’s new experiences prove to be a challenge for Joy, who struggles to keep Riley happy and excited as disappointments mount. But when a new core memory is formed when Riley cries on her first day at her new school, and this one doesn’t belong to joy at all but is instead colored blue for Sadness, things start to spin out of control. Joy and Sadness get in a fight, and an accident causes them and all of Riley’s core memories to be dumped to long term memory, leaving Fear, Anger, and Disgust to run Riley without the help of her core memories. Riley’s mind and sense of self starts to break down without two of her emotions, and Joy and Sadness must traverse Riley’s mind on a journey back to Headquarters, while Riley’s personality begins to crumble around them.
Inside Out is perhaps Pixar’s most ambitious film to date, but not in the way you might think. It’s not especially epic in the classical sense, it lacks both the scope and the realism of some of their other films, and it’s not the sort of movie to make you sit back and say “Wow!” as dazzling sights bombard your eyeballs in 3D. Instead its one of their most narratively complex, telling a simple story on multiple interconnected levels in a unique world unlike anything we’ve ever seen. Writer/director Pete Doctor (along with Ronnie del Carmen) have crafted a world that gives form to things only previously thought of in an abstract sense, full of color and whimsy but with its own internal logic and order. It’s one thing to imagine how memories are formed and where they go, or what our personalities would look like, or where dreams come from, but it’s quite another to turn those into a coherent vision on film that is creative and interesting while still making sense to the story.
It helps that the filmmakers wrangled a talented voice cast (of mostly comedians) to bring both humans and emotions to life. Amy Poehler makes joy more than just a stereotype or cheerleader, giving her an optimistic determination that’s not as spotless as it appears. Phyllis Smith gets many of the best lines as Sadness, who is always shuffled aside in favor of the more demanding emotions, and who struggles with her compulsion to take part in Riley’s life and the inevitability that she’ll bring pain to Riley if she does. Bill Hader, Mindy Kaling, and Lewis Black all have great moments as Fear, Disgust, and Anger, but Lewis Black steals every scene with his trademark brand of fury. Diane Lane and Kyle MacLachlan both have good moments as Riley’s parents, while a host of familiar voices cameo in all sorts of interesting roles. And then there’s newcomer Kaitlyn Dias as Riley, a character you’ll want to give a big hug to by the end of the film. Dias gives Riley an important reliability, allowing anyone to be able to find some part of themself in her.
Inside Out is often brilliantly hilarious (a key scene early in the film around the dinner table flashes from Riley’s mind to those of her parents, and is sure to cause any family in the theater to start elbowing each other in the ribs in familiarity), but its most lasting moments are those that bring you to your knees. There’s a lot of sadness (the emotion, not just the character) in the film, and its most touching moments are often those where things are at their worst. Inside Out in many ways is about growing up, and how we deal with the reality of the world, and many people’s worlds are not always happy. And while Inside Out shows us how to find joy in even the worst situation, it does something a lot more unique and a lot more important.
It would have been easy in Inside Out to make Joy the film’s hero and Sadness or one of the other emotions the villain, for its message to be one of the triumph of happiness over the “negative.” But Inside Out does something altogether different; it teaches us that not only are these emotions a part of us for better or worse, but that they all are not only important and worthy but necessary. Despite what the outside world might say, the film tells us that there should be no guilt shoved on Riley for feeling sad, angry, afraid, or disgusted, and that each of those emotions fill a key role in her life and ours. I’ve seen several articles arguing that Inside Out might be too complex for kids to understand, what with exploring abstract thought or the subconscious, but kids will definitely be able to relate to the way an emotion can take control of you for a while, and can learn from the film that there’s nothing wrong with that.
Inside Out is really a difficult movie to describe. Sure, it’s a film about the emotions that live inside a little girl’s head, but it’s bigger than that. It’s an adventure through one of the most creative worlds ever captured onscreen. It’s a story of big emotions, literally, with sweeping moments of joy, sadness, and the rest that will latch onto your heart. It’s a unique look into who we are and how we live our lives, and it will leave you examining your own reactions to the world around you. It’s a comedy and a drama, it’s loads of fun and tragically dark, it’s delightfully complex but charmingly simple, and it’s unlike anything you’ve ever seen yet it’s immediately familiar. It’s a work of art, one of Pixar’s all-time best, and a film that begs to be seen.