From talking toys and monsters behind closed doors to a dysfunctional family of superheroes and an octogenarian adventurer, the wizards at Pixar have gifted moviegoers with some of cinema’s most endearing characters. Now, after languishing in mediocrity for the last five years with Cars 2, Brave and Monsters University, the studio returns to the form of their glory days with the magical Inside Out – their smartest, funniest and most moving film since the Oscar-winning Wall-E.
The brainchild of writer-director Pete Doctor, the creative genius behind Up and Monsters Inc., Inside Out meshes the emotion-driven storytelling of the former with the meticulous world-building of the later as well as the buddy-comedy aspects of Toy Story to tell us the story of what happens inside the mind of a 11-year-old girl. The inspiration for this brilliant conceit came from an incredibly personal place: Doctor’s then 11-year-old daughter, Ellie. After experiencing the pre-teen’s mood swings, the filmmaker struck upon the idea that her thoughts were being driven by five basic emotions: joy, sadness, anger, disgust and fear. Much of her personality was the result of these five emotions either working in conjunction with or against each other.
In Inside Out, these five emotions are personified by five humanoid entities: the pixyish, blue-haired Joy (voiced by Amy Poehler), the bespectacled and frumpy Sadness (Phyllis Smith), the fiery Anger (Lewis Black), the prissy Disgust (Mindy Kaling) and the stringy, anxiety-ridden Fear (Bill Hader). Sitting in a control tower dubbed “headquarters,” these five emotions work together, taking turns steering the life and personality of Riley, a fun-loving and energetic 11-year-old girl who lives with her parents in Minnesota. At the end of each day, the emotions gather all the memories created that day and send them to a long-term memory bank for future use. Each memory, which the filmmakers have creatively designed to look like a glow-in-the-dark bowling ball, is colored based on the central emotion guiding it. For example, joyful memories are yellow balls; sad ones are blue; red balls are those colored by anger, and so forth.
Since the perky and high-strung Joy has been the dominant emotion for much of Riley’s life, the majority of the girl’s memories are yellow. These include her core memories, which the emotion team has safely stored in a cabinet in the control room. But things begin to go haywire when Riley’s family moves to San Francisco on account of her dad getting a job there. Her new home isn’t as exciting as she expected it would be either: It’s small, ridden with rodents and without any furniture. Moreover, she has no friends and the food isn’t great either. As a result of this (or perhaps the other way around?), things begin to get complicated at headquarters too. Sadness, who has been dormant in Riley’s life so far, starts to inadvertently compete with Joy as the dominant emotion. She keeps touching memories, turning them from joyful yellow ones to sad blue ones, much to the chagrin of the controlling Joy.
One day, in the middle of a stressful moment during Riley’s first day of school, Joy and Sadness get into a fight that results in both of them getting accidentally sucked out from the control tower and thrown into the deep recesses of Riley’s long-term memory. With no idea how to get back, the duo have to work together to find a way back, all while navigating the strange, quirky and bizarre worlds within the girl’s mind. Back in the control tower, with no Joy to lead the way, Anger, Disgust and Fear find themselves in a position they’ve never been before – in control! This proves problematic as their attempts to feign joy and sadness continue to backfire, making Riley act out against her parents in a host of unexpected ways. While the ways that Doctor stages these sequences are funny and inventive it’s the inner workings of Riley’s parents reacting to Riley’s behavior is what takes this movie to another level. This particular sequence, which has been highlighted in many of the film’s trailers, is a masterpiece of comedic timing and originality.
Since Joy and Sadness are the primary characters in Inside Out, Doctor and co-writers Ronnie Del Carmen, Meg LeFauve and Josh Cooley spend the majority of the picture chronicling their journey back to headquarters. And oh, what a stunningly imaginative and inventive journey they’ve created! Jam-packed with slapstick comedy, zaniness and wicked-smart sight and verbal gags, the world of Riley’s mind may quite possibly be the most conceptually dazzling creation in Pixar’s library to date. When you consider that this is the studio that dreamt up the worlds of Monster Inc., Wall-E, Finding Nemo, The Incredibles and Wall-E, that’s high praise.
The brilliance of this movie is how it visualizes abstract entities in a way that is complex enough to delight adults and simple enough to wow kids. Riley’s imagination is housed in Imagination Land, a colorful theme park full of rides, games and puzzles. Meanwhile, her dreams are all scripted in a Hollywood studio called Dream Productions which comes complete with diva movie stars, directors and makeup artists. There’s also the Subconscious, a dark and scary hallway of shadows where nightmares like scary clowns reside. When she’s day-dreaming, her mind goes to Cloud City. Then there’s the land of Abstract Thought, a trippy zone which Doctor and company come up with surreal ways to showcase. Along the way, the duo also meet Bing Bong, Riley’s adorable imaginary friend, who offers to help them find a way back before all of her “islands of personality” – goofball, honesty, hockey, friendship, family – break down and disappear into her memory dump.
As clever and creative as these worlds are, the true power of this motion picture lies in the way the filmmakers are able to make this story an incredibly relatable one. The struggle and pain that Riley goes through is something every one of us has experienced. Teenage years can be fun but they can also be an incredibly confusing and frustrating period. By showcasing the struggle between these characters and how they react to challenges, Doctor has crafted an exceptionally novel way of making us understand how we process our feelings during everyday situations. Joy may be the central character of the movie but Doctor and company argue that more often than not, it’s Sadness that’s equally or even more important to the growth of an individual. In fact, there isn’t such a thing as a bad emotion. Individuals aren’t defined by a single emotion but by the way we react to situations. Children may come out from Inside Out reveling in the comedic aspects of the movie but I suspect it’ll be the adults who will come away from this staggeringly original and innovative motion picture, more invigorated by their experience.
Director: Pete Docter, Ronnie Del Carmen (co-director)
Screenwriter: Pete Docter, Ronnie Del Carmen, Meg LeFauve, Josh Cooley
Cast: (voices of) Amy Poehler, Phyllis Smith, Mindy Kaling, Lewis Black, Bill Hader
Producer: Jonas Rivera
Editor: Kevin Nolting
Music: Michael Giacchino
Running time: 94 minutes
Companies: Pixar, Walt Disney Pictures
Rating: PG (for mild thematic elements and some action)