Pixar knows how to hit emotional buttons. From Toy Story 2‘s “When She Loved Me” to the opening 10 minutes of Up, Pixar has reliably generated some of the most heartwrenching moments in cinematic history. While I don’t think that’s the only thing that Pixar’s managed to get wrong in recent history, I do think that they somehow managed to get away from creating those sorts of moments during this decade. So with their latest film, a film that’s been promoted as “a major emotion picture,” has Pixar remembered how to hit those emotional buttons? Yes – by making some alterations.
Inside Out, Pixar’s 15th motion picture, is the latest effort from longtime Pixar creative mind Pete Docter. This marks Docter’s third Pixar feature as director, and looking at his previous two should give you an idea of his record at dealing with emotions. Those two films: Monsters, Inc. and Up. With Inside Out, Docter takes the emotional component that was vital to both of those previous films and pushes it to the front – literally. While Inside Out does largely involve two central characters going on a journey, which we’ve seen in plenty of other Pixar films, Inside Out is driven more by ideas than those previous features. Some components arguably could be confusing if dwelled on for too long. But where it counts – the emotions – is where Pixar triumphs here.
Inside Out largely takes place in the mind of 11-year-old Riley Anderson (Kaitlyn Dias), who is leaving behind a lifetime of memories and friendships in Minnesota to move with her mom (Diane Lane) and dad (Kyle MacLachlan) to San Francisco. Inside Riley’s mind, five emotions – Joy (Amy Poehler), Sadness (Phyllis Smith), Fear (Bill Hader), Disgust (Mindy Kaling) and Anger (Lewis Black) – work to guide Riley’s life. Joy is the first emotion to appear, and is the clear leader of the group. The five emotions guide Riley’s reactions to events, as well as color her memories of events. Literally. Each memory is contained in a memory orb, colored to match the corresponding emotion. The most important of Riley’s memories are the “core memories,” all of which are joyful. These core memories power different islands that represent aspects of Riley’s personality. And while Joy may seem like the only positive emotion, Joy believes that they all have a purpose in Riley’s life – except Sadness. But Joy and Sadness find themselves sucked away from the center of Riley’s emotions after fighting over a new, notably sad, core memory. The two have to find their way back to headquarters while Fear, Disgust and Anger attempt to guide Riley as she attempts to adjust to San Francisco.
Docter does a tremendous job setting up the concept of the film within the first five minutes. Mostly. It’s not completely clear how the relationship between Riley and her emotions work on a large scale. When baby Riley rejects broccoli, it’s because Disgust responds to the sight of the vegetable. When an older Riley gets upset on her first day at school, it’s because Sadness accidentally blocks her emotional filter. Whatever the mechanics are, though, they work well enough from scene to scene.
Where the film hits its creative stride, though, is when Joy and Sadness begin to make their way through the recesses of Riley’s mind. Joy and Sadness are clearly not natural friends, and that doesn’t really change when they hit the recesses. Joy has to literally drag Sadness along as she tries to find a way back to headquarters. And besides, by being the personification of their specific emotional traits, it’s not like Joy and Sadness can become more like each other.
That’s where another character thankfully comes into play. Bing Bong (Richard Kind), Riley’s imaginary friend from childhood, pops up and offers to guide Joy and Sadness back to headquarters. Bing Bong ends up leading the two on a journey through that’s best discovered by watching the film, so I’ll just say that some of these places are incredibly realized. The level of creativity that comes across in these areas ranks among Pixar’s most inventive worlds ever.
What makes Inside Out truly stand out, though, is where the journey leads, both inside Riley’s mind and outside. Inside especially, the setting may seem new, but it’s also a place we’ve all experienced at some time in our lives. When Riley struggles to show her emotions, we can relate because, well, who hasn’t struggled with their emotions in life? The amount of emotional honesty on display here is staggering, and while I’ve made mention of the film’s internal logic, it ultimately doesn’t matter because it’s not what Inside Out is about.
As Joy eventually learns, there is, in fact, a place for Sadness. Just as there are times where Fear, Disgust and Anger are necessary emotions, sometimes Riley (and the rest of us) need to engage with Sadness. That’s not a bad thing, or something that should be discouraged. Sometimes it’s the best thing.
And even though Inside Out does follow that pattern of two characters going on a journey that we’ve seen before, I’m impressed by the common children’s film tropes that aren’t included here. There’s no antagonist, for example. When things go wrong, it’s just because bad things happen sometimes. That’s true to life, as is the way we react to them. The film’s more focused on hitting those emotional buttons in the purest way possible. And not just to cry. I have to commend whoever was responsible for casting the emotions, because they nailed it. All five are comedic talents, and they perfectly embody each respective emotion.
Whether Inside Out is the beginning of a return to form for Pixar, or just an aberration, remains to be seen. This fall’s The Good Dinosaur has gone through a notably rocky production, and that film will be followed by a slew of sequels (Finding Dory and Toy Story 4, for example). Hopefully, though, it’s the former. Audiences need more projects like this.