For the past twenty years, Pixar has reigned supreme in the animated realm, in large part because its movies aren’t simply witty, or beautifully crafted, or light years more clever than their competition—they also, at their finest, tap into profound questions about what it means to be a child, and what it means to begin becoming an adult. Pixar is a studio interested in creating stories about the most essential, and universal, of human experiences. And in that respect, Inside Out may be its crowning achievement to date.
Debuting this Friday, Pixar’s latest is about an elementary school girl named Riley (Kaitlyn Dias) who, along with her parents, moves across the country from Minnesota to San Francisco—a jarring transition, given that it takes her away from her best friend and sticks her in a new environment whose culture isn’t built around her beloved ice hockey. But more specifically, Inside Out is about Riley’s emotions, which are depicted as five glowing figures who live and work together inside the HQ of Riley’s brain: Joy (Amy Poehler), Sadness (Phyllis Smith), Disgust (Mindy Kaling), Anger (Lewis Black) and Fear (Bill Hader). Tasked with helping Riley get through her days and nights, they’re a dysfunctional collaborative team, with each one called upon to man Riley’s “control panel” when the situation demands it, and with all of them dedicated to caring for Riley’s memories (which come in the shape of glowing spheres) and, in particular, her vital, character-building “core memories.”
While that alone is a cute conception of the human mind, Inside Out takes it many steps further by envisioning a landscape outside of HQ that’s marked by personality islands (i.e. “Friendship Island,” “Goofball Island”) developed by Riley’s interpersonal interactions, as well as a long-term memory storage facility filled with thousands of memory spheres—and which leads to other parts of Riley’s brain, including Imagination Land (where her flights of fancy reside), and Abstract Thought (where everything is transformed into cubist building blocks). It’s in this expansive territory that Inside Out primarily takes place, as its story concerns Joy and Sadness being whisked out of HQ—thanks to Sadness inadvertently touching a blissful core memory and turning it “sad”—and struggling to return to Riley’s control panel before Anger, Disgust, and Fear inadvertently cause her to make unwise decisions that could ruin her life.
Directed by Pete Docter (Monsters Inc., Up), the film is thus structured as a race against time adventure in which odd couple protagonists Joy and Sadness must traverse disparate locales in order to return home. Yet if that journey functions, on the surface, as merely a rollicking rollercoaster ride, its deeper resonance is difficult to miss, and even harder to shake. Bright, bouncy, and full of good cheer, Joy is a peppy go-getter determined to ensure that Riley is always smiling, and consequently, she finds herself at odds with Sadness, a blue-tinged downer who can’t seem to help herself from infecting Riley’s memories—and thus mood—with a shade of pessimism. Theirs is a tug of war between jubilation and depression, and Inside Out posits that dynamic as a constant, both with regards to the present and with the past, as Riley’s recollections of key events are always subject to change courtesy of Sadness, depending on her circumstances.
This is cerebral (pun intended!) stuff for a summer kid’s film, albeit not for Docter, whose prior gems touched upon complex issues of fear and humor (and their intertwined relationship), camaraderie and friendship, the inevitable, sorrowful process of growing old, the bonds shared between generations, and the ways in which youthful dreams both never die and change in unexpected ways as the years go on. It’s also not unfamiliar terrain for Pixar in general. Just think of the Toy Story franchise (which Docter was heavily involved in) and its concerns about childhood maturation, the transience of time, and the way we pass things on to our descendants. Or Ratatouille and its championing of diversity, transcending prejudices (no matter the potential ridicule), and chasing your dreams. Or WALL-E and its pro-environment, pro-human connection portrait of how love, when selfless and true, inspires sacrifices of a heroic nature.
Inside Out is a kindred spirit to those forefathers because, at its heart, it’s a film rooted in bedrock notions about what it is to be alive, how we interact with our fellow man and the world around us, and how those incidents shape—and reshape—who we are, how we feel, and what we think. As Joy and Sadness make their way through Riley’s cortex (and, to some extent, her soul), they come across a variety of subconscious “characters” whose roles speak to the way the mind operates, be it laborers who throw away the old, faded memories Riley no longer cares about (and, in a choice gag, keep sending a memory of an insufferable gum commercial jingle up to the forefront of her mind), or Jangles the Clown, a circus fiend who stands as one of Riley’s great fears. And then there’s Bing Bong (Richard Kind), Riley’s cherished imaginary friend. A cat-elephant hybrid in a silly vest and hat, Bing Bong has increasingly become purposeless and adrift in the now-too-old-for-such-stuff Riley, and his part in helping Joy and Sadness reach their destination is perhaps (and this is saying something) the ultimate waterworks-inducing moment in the entire Pixar canon.
Inside Out is gorgeously animated, boasts a steady stream of laugh-out-loud gags that speak to truths about everyday thought (and life)—highlighted by an inspired credit-epilogue bit about animal consciousness—and stellar voice work from its cast. In other words, it reconfirms that, when it comes to hilarious, aesthetically peerless movies, it’s another in a long line of adolescent-targeted Pixar triumphs.
Ultimately, however, to think of Docter’s latest as merely a kids film is to minimize its achievement. That’s because, as Joy and Sadness wend their way back to HQ, what they both come to understand is that misery is as important a part of life as is happiness. And, more fundamentally, they realize that happy memories are often the ones that make us saddest, and that misery (both past and present) is frequently what inspires in us the greatest feelings of elation, and what binds us to one another—thus inspiring the delight and comfort of togetherness.
Recognizing that unhappiness and happiness can’t exist without each other, Inside Out celebrates the fact that we are a stew of conflicting and complementary emotions, all of them inextricably bound up in a tangled knot that’s constantly altering its form, and that defines (and redefines) us as we grow up. In the process, it proves to be the most euphoric feel-bad movie of the summer.