We all have childhood memories of some big change intruding on our lives, something that made us feel powerless or lonely. Our emotions became a maelstrom over which we felt no control. Pete Docter’s latest film, Inside Out, taps into these childhood feelings perfectly. But then, this comes as no surprise from someone who gave us an effective story about struggling to stay relevant (Monsters, Inc.) and one of the most tear-jerking animated sequences in film history (Up).
By taking joy, sadness, anger, fear, and disgust and making them concrete, tangible characters, Docter nails the essence of how children adapt to huge changes, making for an emotionally truthful and relatable story.
Inside Out centers on Riley Anderson (Kaitlyn Dias), a happy 11-year-old who loves hockey, horseplay, and her family and friends. Most of this movie takes place inside Riley’s mind, as managed by five emotions: Joy (Amy Poehler), Sadness (Phyllis Smith), Fear (Bill Hader), Anger (Lewis Black), and Disgust (Mindy Kaling). Joy, the oldest emotion, runs the show, meaning Riley associates most of her memories with joy. This all gets turned upside-down when the Andersons move from Minnesota to San Francisco, and despite the best efforts of Riley’s mom (Diane Lane) and dad (Kyle MacLachlan), Riley finds this move difficult and stressful. She becomes withdrawn and depressed, gradually losing interest in things she once loved and abandoning the things that make her Riley. After a struggle with Riley’s core memories, Joy and Sadness become separated from their colleagues, flung to the furthest reaches of Riley’s mind. They soon meet Bing-Bong (Richard Kind), Riley’s wacky, solicitous imaginary friend who wants to bring back the happy times he felt with Riley. Bing-Bong excels at navigating Riley’s mind, but he struggles to accept that Riley has outgrown him. Joy, Sadness, and Bing-Bong embark on a long journey back to the headquarters of Riley’s brain, so that Riley can become capable of feeling happiness once again.
The film works well because the internal characters’ struggles and the way they develop closely parallel how Riley changes as a person. Joy starts the film trying to dismiss, suppress, and ignore Sadness at every turn. By the end, Joy sees the importance of Sadness in strengthening relationships and enhancing the other emotions. Joy goes from a control freak to a team player; this parallels the development of complex emotions that bridge the gap between childhood and adulthood. Sadness also gains self-esteem and starts to feel useful as Riley gains perspective. Disgust, Anger, and Fear each start the film looking out only for themselves, but they eventually learn to work together and play off each other’s strengths. Bing-Bong serves to remind us that even faded memories can still remain close to our hearts and influence the people we become.
We don’t just see the inside of Riley’s mind, either. We get glimpses into the minds of Riley’s parents too. (On a related note, stay for the closing credits!) Notably, as adults, they have all five of their emotions working in harmony. Docter depicts that development of harmony as an essential part of becoming a fully-realized person. Life can’t consist of pure joy from beginning to end; it doesn’t work that way. But the importance of owning and allowing for all five emotions leads to a certain kind of long-term happiness and enrichment that stretches far beyond simple momentary joy.
Psychological explorations aside, this film still works emotionally. As Sadness taints an old memory, we feel sadness. As Joy looks for the silver lining, we feel happiness. This doesn’t work as well for Anger, Fear, or Disgust—at least from an adult perspective. But obviously, as we grow up, the things that make us feel angry, afraid, or disgusted change. The film gets a little predictable at times, particularly around the second act, but Docter makes up for the events by the way he handles them: affectionate and sometimes cheesy, but never schmaltzy or detached.
Of course, as a Pixar film, Inside Out brings the laughs too. The character design takes this to the next level. The five emotions and Bing-Bong all have simple and yet carefully-revised, colorful designs; they all look slightly asymmetrical and quirky, which tinges their character moments with comedy. Everything they say comes out a little funnier because the characters “look like” their jokes.
The human characters look specific enough to remain memorable, yet general enough so that viewers can identify with the characters. Michael Giacchino’s score never intrudes, but it supplements the emotions incredibly well. Riley’s mind just looks as beautiful, varied, and colorful as you’d expect of an 11-year-old. The production design clearly had a ton of work put into it, and the cinematography makes full use of that.
Since movies first became a thing, filmmakers have sought to find ways to depict internal emotions on the screen. Inside Out does this better than most movies, even if it “cheats” a bit with its central conceit. This film may seem like a one-trick pony at first glance, but it successfully bridges the gap between an introspective character study and an animated comedy. Best of all, this film teaches a great lesson to kids: we all have times when we can’t seem to cope, or we feel overwhelmed and powerless, and that’s OK.Liked This? Share It!