Life is a bundle of changes for 11-year-old Riley Anderson. A new home, a new state, a new school, a new group of friends. And change can be a scary thing, especially when it comes at a cost. Riley’s unstable circumstances affect how she relates not only to other people but to her own disorganized emotions, and in developing its heroine so strongly as a character and a human being, Pixar’s latest film Inside Out distinguishes itself not merely as one of the long-acclaimed studio’s finest films, but also as one of the most thematically mature and important animated films to come along in a while.
Every emotion has its place.
Pixar knows how to open a movie, greeting us with the adorable sight of Riley as a newborn. Her parents, and hopefully the audience, can hardly help but love her, and Inside Out’s remarkable premise begins in earnest when we meet Joy, the foremost of the emotions inside this precious child’s mind. An eternal ray of sunshine, Joy looks like a flightless, blue-haired Tinkerbell, and she has a single simple button in front of her: press it, and Riley coos for her enthusiastic parents. Joy doesn’t have the baby girl (or the button) all to herself for long, as Sadness eventually joins and is able to make Riley cry on command.
As Riley steadily grows older, more emotions join, such as Fear, Disgust, and Anger. The portrayal of varying emotions as independent, color-coded people is not new (DC Comics’ Teen Titans series has also done it), but their introductions and presence work as much to develop Joy–who to this point had effectively known little else besides happiness–as to develop Riley, who owns and carries these emotions but is to some degree governed by them, and each other.
All of the aspects of Riley’s developing personality serve their purpose in turn, ranging from Fear preventing her from running over an electrical cord, to Anger helping Riley express her needs as only he can. (Disgust will never know the joy of broccoli, as she acknowledges the option of putting melted butter and crushed crackers on it and making a casserole.) These manifestations don’t feel like one-dimensional characters, because they prove themselves capable of feeling emotions that could have been alien to them. Joy can feel disgust, for example, and if Sadness or Anger ever feels happiness, it’s usually a sign of impending black comedy. Even Fear can be happy from time to time.
Inside Out also devotes a healthy amount of time to showing how this fictionalized portrayal of Riley’s mind really “works,” complete with its own internal environments, a ‘Head’Quarters, and a variety of intuitively designed machines. Memories are represented as sliding marbles, their color designating the emotion that most defines them. Riley’s peaceful recollection of time spent with her parents, for example, is given a joyful gold, as are the majority of her other memories. Particularly important moments are given a special place, and Riley’s core values, such as friendship, hockey (yay!), and honesty, even have their own islands connected to the Headquarters and to each other.
Every memory has a meaning.
The emotions themselves don’t always get along, however. Joy, the de facto but contested “manager,” has a tendency to listen only to herself, even as she has the best of intentions and a smile on her face when she does it. Her limiting treatment of Sadness creates as many problems as it prevents, and it’s not long before the both of them wind up lost and stranded outside of Riley’s emotional center. From here, much of the film’s middle act is a frenzied heroic journey through the recesses of a young girl’s mind, but it’s anchored in the poignant reality of the youngest Anderson struggling with her first day at her new school.
The scene of the teacher introducing Riley to her peers is a classic cliche, but underneath lies a powerful uncertainty: How do you define yourself? The girl’s external difficulties are affected by her own internal struggles, which leave their mark across her core memories and values and raise the movie’s stakes in a unique and profound way; even though a few of these detours feel unnecessary and bizarre, especially one that evokes the unusual character modeling of The Book of Life along with that film’s random approach to storytelling, Inside Out never loses sight of its most precious themes, including one that will be horribly unsettling for parents or other caretakers of children, and the story is more than able to recover from a fast-paced but dull slump to bring about a powerful and memorable finale.
Our feelings have value, but they do not define us.
Inside Out stands at its absolute best when it accepts the overwhelming difficulty and significance of its premise. It admits and recognizes that the most responsible way to look at life is not with undiluted joy or sadness or disgust but to acknowledge that all of these things are important in some degree and that none of them exclusively dictate the way we should see the world and its people. It’s a humbling message and a beautiful one; how often have I resorted to easy gratification just to fill an unresolved emotional void that only got bigger over time? The plot keeps its scope and running time limited and doesn’t really ask the question of what to do about people who use emotion to manipulate others (to that end, there isn’t really a primary villain, which is hardly a bad thing), but seeing as this is essentially a long-form dissection of the psychological aftereffects of a girl moving cross-country, it stands to reason that this sort of analysis could probably be done with nearly any story.
Some portions of this movie’s midsection seem to pad its running minutes with endless action, and this tendency eventually catches up with the film, which no longer has anywhere for itself or its internal protagonists to run. Indeed, this very style of behavior is implied to lead to an incredible sense of loss, ranking for a profound did-they-really scene that is easily among this studio’s best ‘growing-up’ moments.
One of the biggest problems I had with films such as Up and Toy Story 3 was that those films didn’t always seem to ‘commit’ to their more emotional moments for very long, possibly for fear of alienating children or sensitive audience members. Toy Story 3 in particular seemed very abrupt with its mood swings between that film’s final moments and its upbeat credits, a problem Inside Out acknowledges but is ultimately able to overcome. This film maturely acknowledges that sadness and many other non-ideal feelings are just as important for emotional well-being as happiness and joy are, and whether despite or because of the story’s own growing pains, the film feels more complete and more complex in its understanding of emotions and the way we live and think about our lives. When the end credits roll here, they truly feel cathartic, and their emotional release feels earned.
Speaking of mood swings, though the film never digresses to make this point or to preach a “feminine” message, I feel like it’s praiseworthy and deserving of a mention: Riley is never told or encouraged to discard or ignore any of her emotions, even the more difficult ones, or to treat them as being isolated from one another. She’s never portrayed as being anything other than normal and human, and her needs are never treated as being weird instead of being relatable, both by girls and boys alike. Her emotions vary, but they’re never random or dangerously unstable–it’s always clear why she feels the way she does at any point in time. Both of the girl’s parents are somewhat inattentive despite their good intentions, and her friends are basically just present as storytelling tools, but this film primarily exists to develop Riley as a remarkable character and to tell an original story that’s not just about what she thinks but also about how and why she does. And it valiantly succeeds.
Conclusion: Mind over matter
Never mind the question of whether Inside Out is “the best Pixar movie ever,” because I don’t see what difference it makes, and at this point I’m just thankful to not have another Brave or Cars 2. (I skipped Monsters University.) Some strange pacing decisions keep this film from being this studio’s finest work, but it doesn’t matter–this is a film I expect not only to be extremely warmly received but to prove its enduring worth in the years to come. The movie excels as a timeless and deeply needed message of emotional understanding, both of others and of ourselves, even in areas where we may indeed need to grow, as some of Riley’s emotions themselves discover.
Even from a technical standpoint, this is a beautiful movie, with a restrained musical score (though I never want to hear that ridiculous gum-commercial song or the one from the otherwise gorgeous preceding short film Lava again) and amazing character animation. Riley and her friends and family look incredible onscreen, particularly in terms of giving these people realistic and believable emotions. Intense emotion isn’t always the easiest thing to convey, whether in art or in voice acting, but Inside Out nails both across the board and never dips into laughable or melodramatic territory.
Crude humor is generally limited to Riley being a bit “cheeky” while running around as a baby and having a nightmare about not wearing pants while at school. It’s portrayed responsibly, though in the bigger picture the circumstances of why that nightmare is shown (it isn’t the other kids’ fault) raise some rather disturbing ethical questions. The various emotions have a bunch of goofy but usually clean gags among one another, even as Anger wants to use curse words but does not. There are few enemies to fight or run from other than a disturbing clown, but the very necessary sad tone of the story is enough by itself for parents to be aware of. Pixar deserves a commendation–this is a film that deserves to be treated as “mature” not for being inappropriate but for being deeply thoughtful.
Go see Inside Out, especially if you have a particular heart’s desire to meet and help others in the midst of their emotional needs and longings, because it’s not consistent that I see a film so utterly humanize its characters and treat them as likable people throughout the full range of their emotional expression and development. Not all such expression is healthy, of course, but neither is an unrealistic expectation of perfection or a disappointment in its absence. Pixar has created yet another children’s film that shines when treated as an adult story, and just as importantly, the film makes every indication of actually learning and growing from its internal mistakes, becoming a better story–certainly one of the studio’s best–for having faced and dealt with them.
Image credits (property of Pixar Animation Studios)
– Movie poster – source
– Joy, at Riley’s control console – source
– Full range of emotions – source
– Emotions staring at islands – source (spoilers, but in Spanish)
– Joy and Sadness – source
– Yes, that’s a pink elephant … sort of – source
– Riley, emotional – source
– Riley, playing hockey with her parents – source
– Brazilian helicopter pilot! – source