If growing up partly means learning to live with sadness, Inside Out depicts this truth with all the ingenuity and wit of Pixar’s best efforts.
Mostly set inside the head of 11-year-old Riley (voiced by Kaitlyn Dias), the movie imagines that Riley’s psychological state is managed by a team of personified emotions: Joy (Amy Poehler), Sadness (Phyllis Smith), Fear (Bill Hader), Anger (Lewis Black) and Disgust (Mindy Kaling). They’ve had a fairly easy time of things so far – as the only child of affluent, loving parents, Riley’s life has been relatively happy – but with the family moving from Minnesota to San Francisco (to say nothing of impending puberty), Joy finds that her position as the dominant emotion is being challenged.
In short, Joy has to make room for Sadness. The endless delight of Inside Out lies in the inventive ways the movie’s animation literalizes such abstract concepts. While Joy is visualized as a bright sprite – a combination of Tinker Bell and Happy-Go-Lucky’s Poppy – Sadness is a blue, bespectacled blob whose sentences trail off at the end, like faint echoes that persist in spite of themselves. Trying to contain her early on, Joy draws a circle on the ground, pushes her into it and says, “Just make sure all the sadness stays in the circle.”
This all takes place in the command center of Riley’s mind, a translucent tower that looks out over the vastness of her consciousness. Below are floating “islands of personality,” physical manifestations of those qualities that have come to define Riley: her love of hockey, her bonds of friendship, her penchant for goofiness. As Riley’s emotions sway back and forth, these islands shudder and in some cases begin to crumble. The most wrenching moment for me came after Riley’s dad tries to cheer her up by making one of the monkey faces they used to giggle over when she was younger. After she scowls in response, the movie cuts to inside her head, where we watch Goofball Island crumble and fall into an abyss. It’s just one instance of the movie imbuing outlandish imagery with real pathos.
The interior scenes are where most of the Pixar magic really happens.
Director Pete Docter (Monsters Inc., Up), working with co-director Ronaldo Del Carmen, nicely balances the scenes of “real-life” Riley with those inside her head. Still, the interior scenes are where most of the Pixar magic really happens. For reasons I won’t get into, Joy and Sadness find themselves journeying into unfamiliar reaches of Riley’s brain. There, they encounter workers charged with deleting unwanted memories, which are represented by glowing balls. (When they’re feeling mischievous, these workers send a memory of a terrible advertising jingle back to the top of her mind.) Joy and Sadness also meet Bing Bong (Richard Kind), Riley’s long-forgotten imaginary friend, an elephant-like creature who is largely made of cotton candy and sheds candy tears.
These three have a series of adventures that are loosely tied to the narrative at large, while also playing like a collection of clever animated shorts riffing on Psychology 101. At one point, Joy, Sadness and Bing Bong enter a tunnel called Abstract Thought, where they’re initially contorted into Cubist versions of themselves and eventually reduced to 2-D incarnations (a gag that especially worked for me, as I was stuck watching the picture in 3-D). Later, they try to take over Dream Productions, hoping to wake Riley up with a pleasant dream but instead subjecting her to an awful nightmare involving a dog trying to literally eat its own tail. And I won’t spoil what they find in Riley’s subconscious, except to note that perhaps only Pixar could breathe life into the tired gag of the scary clown.
For all of its inspired silliness, however, Inside Out never loses that crucial connection to Riley. Her inner life is a consistent reflection of her outer turmoil. That turmoil only seems to grow after a clumsy hockey tryout and a disastrous first day at school, yet rather than wash away the sadness – as most movies, especially kids’ movies, are wont to do – Inside Out comes to embrace it. A key scene involves a despondent Bing Bong, whom Joy immediately, forcefully, attempts to cheer. Yet he can’t move on until Sadness has plopped down next to him and encourages him to cry. This may seem like pop psychology, until you realize that it’s one of the hardest lessons for parents to learn (and Pixar movies are always for the parents first). Especially nowadays, we want to insulate our children from anything remotely prickly; no doubt sadness-free menus are in the works somewhere. By pushing back against that mentality, Inside Out speaks a simple truth, one captured by the surprisingly simple image with which the movie concludes: a young girl’s tearful smile.