Inside Out is the Platonic ideal of a Pixar movie. It begins with a simple idea, as though plucked from the brilliant creativity of an infant’s imagination – What do your toys do when you’re not around? What if the world was populated by cars? – or perhaps cribbed from a ’90s television producer – What if there were tiny people in your brain controlling your emotions? That premise is contorted through a framework of bright colours, exciting adventure, winning humour and – critically – a deep, abiding sense of melancholy.
Said tiny people are Joy (Amy Poehler), Sadness (Phyllis Smith), Anger (Lewis Black), Fear (Bill Hader) and Disgust (Mindy Kaling). The mechanics of their daily existence – staffing the brain of a prepubescent girl named Riley (Kaitlyn Dias) – are wrought with intricate, thoughtful detail by Pete Docter and Ronnie del Carmen. Inspiration is delivered by a “Train of Thought” which constructs its own train tracks (à la Gumby). Memories take the form of glowing orbs – colour-coded by their dominant emotion – which are either shuttled off to long-term memory to be sorted or enshrined as “core memories.” Those core memories are linked to islands of personality – family, friendship, hockey, etc – that define who Riley is. This is a Pixar film, so I’m just scraping the surface here – there’s also a dream production company, a realm of imagination (populated by fictional boyfriends and an imaginary friend) and so much more.
The emotions’ day-to-day operation is thrown into disarray when Riley moves from her home town to the inner city – bringing with it uncertainty, familial conflict and a new school with all the concomitant challenges that implies. Joy – who at this stage is Riley’s dominant crew member, with the majority of her memories shining her warm golden colour – attempts to keep control of the situation, but her desperate attempts to keep Sadness from ‘tainting’ Riley’s core memories ends up with the pair of them jettisoned outside the control centre. The bulk of story’s narrative, then, follows Joy and Sadness’ attempts to make their way back to the control centre (assuming the familiar shape of the buddy comedy, Pixar’s favourite genre), mirrored by Riley’s own longing for home.
More than a few people have described Inside Out as a story about depression. If we’re implying clinical depression, I don’t entirely agree – Riley has good reason to be sad, having left her friends and childhood home behind – but there’s certainly resonance there as we watch Fear, Anger and Disgust struggle to modulate Riley’s emotions without Joy and Sadness’ input. This is a film about emotions, but it’s also one carefully calibrated to inspire an emotional reaction. It’s difficult not to be moved as we watch Joy and Sadness trek through Riley’s forgotten memories, as we watch her islands of personality disintegrate, as we watch this girl struggle to find herself in a new, unfamiliar world.
The intricate, thoughtful detail I mentioned before extends beyond the mechanics of the brain’s operation. Yes, there are inventive little jokes about abstract thought and facts and opinions littered throughout, but it’s especially impressive how grounded Inside Out is in real psychology. Riley’s difficulty in coping with change is a direct result of her joyful infancy thus far – syncing up with modern studies that suggest those from the most privileged backgrounds are the least resilient – and the most susceptible to depression. Even gender is handled with (subtle) nuance; it hardly seems accidental that Riley’s brain is controlled by a mix of genders while a glimpse into her parents’ minds (the scene showcased in the trailer – perhaps the film’s weakest) reveals they’re run by a bank of emotions that match their gender. The implication of gender fluidity is appreciated (even if it contradicts recent studies suggesting a biological aspect to gender beyond physical sex).
Speaking of gender, the film is quietly revolutionary in the way its three primary characters – Joy, Sadness and Riley – are all played by women. The fact that this decision proved somewhat controversial – see this laughable lament of a mother in the Courier Mail, arguing that Inside Out “just reinforces society’s young-men crisis” – indicates how rare it is to see a children’s film (or, hell, any film) voiced/acted primarily by women.
As a piece of entertainment, Inside Out doesn’t quite reach the peaks of Pixar’s best films – or, at least, it didn’t for me. It’s comparatively low on laughs, which is understandable given the seriousness of its subject matter (though how refreshing it is to see such a small-scale dilemma treated more seriously than, say, the fate of the world in The Incredibles!). My main reservation – and my reluctance to slap a “masterpiece” label on the film, as many already have – centres on the film’s narrative tension, or lack thereof.
Specifically, I found the storyline predictable, which weakened my engagement with the film. Perhaps I’m venturing into spoiler territory here, but it seemed self-evident that not only would Joy and Sadness succeed in their trek back to the control centre, but that the destruction of Riley’s islands of personality – and, say, the final abandonment of her imaginary friend Bing Bong (Richard Kind) – was inevitable. This is a personal response to the film, of course. If Twitter is anything to go by, many others have experienced profound emotional reactions to these events, while some critics – like, say, Devin Faraci, who describes being “on the edge of [his] seat with true tension” – were compelled by the film’s narrative machinations.
Clearly my own experiences here have coloured my perception of the film; while I’m not a parent and I’ve never been an eleven year-old girl, my day job as a high school teacher (at an all-girls’ school) has allowed me to bear witness to hundreds of young women experiencing personality upheaval. Inevitably that kind of transformation involves shedding old personality traits – like, say, “goofball island” – while forsaking memories – like imaginary friends – that no longer gel with the person they’ve become. So I watched Inside Out with a sense of optimism – not just because it’s a Pixar movie and they tend to have happy endings (though I confess Toy Story 3 had me doubting that for just a moment), but because I believe that the kind of emotional upheaval portrayed here is a necessary aspect of growing up.
Maybe I’m just a jaded adult, I don’t know. Nonetheless, the film did move me. When Joy finds herself in the detritus of Riley’s abandoned, blackened memories, digging through faded orbs to view an image of an infant Riley joyously doodling on paper, I found myself thinking about the personalities and memories I’ve discarded on your way to who I am now. Inside Out ultimately (and unsurprisingly) reconciles Joy and Sadness, revealing that our most important memories are a fragile, commingled mix of emotions – happy and sad all at once. Looking back on my own forgotten memories of childhood, slowly fading away, it’s hard not to agree with the message.