My Rating: 9 out of 10
Pixar didn’t disappoint with Inside Out, a movie about the inner workings of an eleven year old girl named Riley’s brain. The story is told entirely from the viewpoint of Riley’s five main emotions: Joy, Sadness, Disgust, Anger, and Fear. All of whom live in her brain and use a large console to effect the decisions she makes by influencing her with emotions, memories, and sometimes specific ideas.
The main character is Joy (voiced by Amy Poehler), literally the embodiment of happiness. Joy is the very first emotion to come into existence when Riley is born and serves as the leader of the others, who all want Riley to be happy and play their respective parts to make this happen. Sadness is the only one of the five emotions that doesn’t seem to have a purpose in the overall scheme of giving Riley a happy childhood and is usually given menial tasks by Joy.
The meat of the story begins when Riley and her parents move from Minnesota to San Francisco, where things are not what anyone had hoped for. Having to deal with a disappointing new home, new peers at school, and an overworked father, Riley starts to find it difficult to stay happy. Joy attempts to fix the situation in the ways she always has, but after Riley has a particularly traumatic first day at school, Joy accidentally sucks herself and Sadness into longterm memory, which they must escape from before the other three emotions cause Riley to have a breakdown.
The core of this movie is an extreme basic and somewhat overdone story, where a young girl on the verge of becoming a teenager moves away from everything she knows to a new place and must figure out where she fits in and who she is. But what’s so brilliant about Inside Out is that this is just the thin layer on top of the plot to ground everything in reality. The story is simple and has an important emotional message (no pun intended) at the end, but wouldn’t work as a Pixar movie in and of itself. By focusing on the real world only in the context of how it effects the five emotion characters (particularly Joy), the movie allows us to experience the story in an exciting, fanciful world, while caring more about what Riley is going through.
The majority of Inside Out takes place inside Riley’s brain, which is a world as elaborately constructed and showcased as any fantasy or sci-fi setting. The great thing about this loopy, magical place is that it is all grounded in real psychological ideas and brain functions. For example, certain longterm memories cloud over time and are forgotten, while other memories become the pillars of Riley’s personality. One of my favorite running jokes in the film (which still has a lot of Pixar humor despite being very sad at times) is when workers in longterm memory consistently send an annoying jingle from a chewing gum commercial up to the control tower so it continuously plays in Riley’s head.
The same metaphors that shape and ground the setting do the same for the five emotional characters. While these characters do act primarily in ways that correspond to their given emotion, they can perceive the entire spectrum of feeling themselves. As the true main character, Joy is usually as exuberant and hopeful as you’d expect her to be, but also experiences sadness, fear, etc. This depth of emotion even in literal emotions helps to make the characters more relatable, which they absolutely are.
Joy has many elements of a child that make her similar to Riley, but ends up being more like a second mother to Riley that understands her in ways her real mother cannot. This is a double edged sword though, as it makes things even harder on Joy when events outside of her control alter Riley’s life and state of mind. One of the biggest metaphors running through this giant metaphor of a film is the idea of coping with the fact that your kids will have to deal with emotions other than happiness in their lives and no matter what you do to try to protect them this fact is inevitable.
Riley’s emotions work together, but are more at odds with one another because (like Riley herself) they have not matured to the point they blend into one another. Joy wants to remain dominant and the other emotions are okay with this because they want Riley to be happy, but this setup is not sustainable because as childhood gives way into adulthood, emotions become more mixed. Throughout the film, we get glimpses into the heads of other characters and find out that in older people, emotions are less reactionary and work together like officials running a political system. On top of this, Joy is rarely the emotion in charge for adults.
Similarly to Toy Story 3 (and a number of other Pixar films), Inside Out reaches out to audiences of all ages. When we think of animated movies, we automatically assume they are for children (though this ridiculous stereotype that has started to diminish in the last 10 years). However, I would say that the target audience of Inside Out is probably the parents going with their children more than the kids themselves. There are plenty of messages that kids would pick up on about the importance of expressing how they feel and relying on their family, but there many messages that would only resonate with older people and particularly with parents.
As someone in my mid-twenties who is trying to find my place in the world outside of school, I felt a connection to a lot of the emotional beats of the story, especially the idea that joy is something abundant in childhood that gives way to an amalgamation of different feelings as we age. However, parents that are having trouble with their child maturing into a teenager or going away to college or even moving out of their home after school will have the most visceral connection to Joy when watching this movie. Don’t let the idea that this is an animated movie for kids dissuade you, there is something here for everyone!
One of my favorite things about animated stories is that they can take you to fanciful places that could never exist in reality and the characters can physically express themselves in ways that would be impossible for ever the best actors. Pixar makes use of these two aspects in all of their movies, but also infuses their stories with the five emotions that inhabited the spotlight in Inside Out. Just as Joy and Sadness were the focus of the film, these two emotions are the foundation of all exceptional works of storytelling. This is why Pixar films resonate so deeply with people and why they never fall into the category of shallow kids films.
Inside Out is a movie that makes you laugh, think, and maybe even cry, which is what makes it so amazing. The only reason that I gave the movie a 9 instead of a 10 is that the depressing aspects of the story took up just a little too much screen time. In comparison, movies like Up and Finding Nemo had much more powerful depressing moments, but made up for these emotional dips with numerous comedic and moving highs. Inside Out lacks a punch-in-the-gut type depressing scene and has a balance that leans more on the sad side of the spectrum (which fits in with the theme of their story), but prevents the film from becoming Pixar’s best instead of one of the best.
Regardless of this tiny complaint, Inside Out is, in my opinion, one of the best Pixar movies made in years and definitely earned a spot in my top 5. Be sure to check it out before it leaves theaters and bring the whole family along! This is absolutely that everyone will love and will have your family leaving the theatre feeling closer than when you went in.