Pixar at its very best.
“The allotted function of art is not, as is often assumed, to put across ideas, to propagate thoughts, to serve as an example. The aim of art is to prepare a person for [life], to plough and harrow [her] soul, rendering it capable of turning to good.”
The above quote by Andrei Tarkovsky, slightly modified to fit this film’s lead and to remove a bit of the morbidity, is perhaps the closest one can come to describing the transcendent nature this film. Pete Docter and Jonas Riviera’s unique creation is not only an attempt to bring Pixar back to its glory days, but an attempt to understand the impending challenges of raising little girls on the precipice of teen-hood. To call it a story about the loss of innocence would imply some sort of tragedy, and while the film has no dearth of devastating moments that hearken back to childhood, it’s not so much a lamentation as it is an acceptance. For all its charm and colour, and all its whacky and fun ideas, Inside Out is ultimately a family film about reconciliation, and coming to terms with growing up.
Joy. Sadness. Fear. Anger. Disgust. These are the five little people who live inside Riley’s head, or rather, they’re the personifications of her feelings, emotions and impulses. They come into being the moment she’s born, and they’re with her every waking second whether she knows it or not. The film is deceptively simple, in that it literalizes so many abstract concepts, but its devilishly clever in how it gets all those ideas to work in tandem, both with each other and with Riley herself. The movie takes place simultaneously in Riley’s head as well as in her immediate environment. She’s an only child who grew up playing Ice Hockey in rural Minnesota, and when she turns twelve, her parents decide to move to San Francisco. The whole story is about whether or not she’s able to adjust during her first few days there, but in personifying her entire emotional process, its scope ends up being akin to perhaps the greatest of epics.
Amy Poehler’s Joy is the ring leader, the pixie-esque one of the bunch who keeps Riley happy and looks after her like a fairy godmother. Her supporting players are Bill Hader’s neurotic, paranoid Fear, who keeps Riley safe, Lewis Black’s impulsive, hot-headed Anger, who keeps her on the defensive, and Mindy Kaling’s sassy, sarcastic Disgust, who keeps her from being poisoned, both physically and socially. Oh, and there’s also Phyllis Smith’s Sadness. She makes Riley sad sometimes. The others don’t quite understand her function, and she doesn’t seem to either. The control room headquarters, or Riley’s brain if we’re getting technical, is like an intricately designed spaceship, with panels and levers, and a screen that displays what Riley sees when she’s awake, or what she’s thinking about, or what her dreams look like when she’s asleep. The five emotions keep her in check and make sure she’s functioning at her optimum. Every time Riley makes a new memory, it comes down the pipeline in the form of a beautiful crystal ball, each one colour-coded based on what kind of memory it is. Similar to each character, the yellow memories are the ones brought about by Joy (they’re the most frequent), the red ones are Anger, the purple ones are Fear, the green ones are Disgust, and the rare blue ones are because of Sadness.
Riley’s a spunky, happy girl, and her personality is defined by five specific ‘core memories’, yellow ones that glow brightly and have a place at the center of the control room instead of being sent down to the vast valley of long-term memory. Each of these core memories connects to an island far outside the control room that represents a key aspect of who she is. Honesty. Family. Friendship. Hockey. Fun! Five simple distillations of what makes Riley tick, each fueled by powerful memories from her childhood. However, once she moves away from the bright skies and fresh air, towards a more crammed, urban environment where everything is different and her parents are under the crazy stress of the entire move, she begins to struggle with who she is. They expect her to be their bright, happy girl, but she finds herself unable to cope with the changes, and even cries on her first day of school. Back in the control room, this first day comes down the pipeline as her first sad core memory, and Sadness begins to fiddle around with the other ones (making them turn partially blue, and then entirely!) until they spill out of their display case, and get sucked away into long-term memory – along with Joy and Sadness themselves. Riley no longer has direct access to Joy and Sadness, and she now sees her core memories through a melancholy lens as she struggles with processing her new life while also staying strong for her parents. To make sure she’s finally able to feel something again, Joy and Sadness have to find their way back to Headquarters in order to put the core memories back where they belong.
Each Island of her personality begins to fade and crumble as Riley starts to lose herself to a whirlwind of thoughts and feelings that she can’t quite understand. Every time this is visualized, the actual crumbling grows more and more intense, and is portrayed as more devastating and final, starting with Goofball Island, and working its way up to Family. Down in the long-term maze, Joy and Sadness come across Bing Bong, Riley’s childhood imaginary friend who she hasn’t thought of in a while. He’s a happy, elephant like creature made from cotton candy, and the kind of character that tends to make most modern kids’ movies unbearable, but there’s a charming sincerity to him, owed to the fact that all he cares about is Riley’s happiness, and taking her to the Moon in their make-shift wheelbarrow rocket-ship like they had planned when she was little.
The trio stumbles through the maze, going from one challenge to the next as they attempt to make their way back to HQ in order to help Riley deal with everything she’s going through. Along the way they come across mine workers in charge of sending old memories into the pit in between the islands and HQ where they’re left to fade and be forgotten, though sometimes they sneakily send up songs that get stuck in Riley’s head for no reason! The trio also try and take a shortcut through Riley’s imagination, where they get stuck in the part of her brain that processes abstract concepts like the loneliness she feels at school – and the breakdown of her process gets further literalized here as the characters themselves grow more and more visually abstract, in what is one of the film’s handful of surprisingly intelligent jokes (The other is when they accidentally knock over boxes containing ‘facts’ and ‘opinions’ and mix them up because they look the same). Their goal is to get the core memories back where they belong by catching the Train of Thought, a literal train that creates its own tracks as it runs through Riley’s conscious mind, so that she can once again feel close to her family, her friends, and the sport she loves. Riley’s reliance on her old memories to be happy, and thus Joy’s reliance on them, are in a sense the main antagonist. She can’t get herself to accept the new memories she’s bound to make because there’s a hint of sadness attached to them, and a longing for home, which is why in a fit of anger directed at her parents, she decides to run away and go back to Minnesota.
It isn’t so much the physical running away that forms the main tension of the film as it is her inability to reconcile with her family and her new environment, while learning how to process her own conflicting emotions. That’s raw, hard-hitting stuff, and it’s all visualized in the form of colourful characters who look like stuffed little plushies. The American sit-com all star cast is perfect, especially Parks & Recreation lead Amy Poehler as Joy. She carries over Leslie Knope’s unbridled enthusiasm and positivity, organizing the day’s activities while playing the leader (and the harmonica!), but the fact that she’s essentially a twelve-year-old herself makes her somewhat selfish in her aspirations. She’s the undying American spirit combined with the American tendency to be closed off to the rest of the world, and she needs to learn how to share. Phyllis Smith of The Office plays the mopey, adorable Sadness, and while much of her plight is played for laughs, she’s caught in a constant state of existential crisis, with no idea as to why she exists. Like Riley, she has no idea why she’s feeling what she is, or what she’s meant to do with it. These two characters learning to work together is the film’s plot, but its core story lies in everything this plot represents. The idea that joy can be naïve and sadness has its place, and the two aren’t mutually exclusive. Sometimes they can work together. In fact, sometimes they need to. While rewinding one of the core memories, Joy realizes that the initial part of the happy recollection was blue. It was, in that instance, the fact that Riley was sad that led her family and teammates to come make her happy.
Riley is propelled into young adulthood much faster than she had anticipated, and while she has no time to consciously think about her childhood fantasy Bing Bong, the reason he has such an important part to play is that he’s a representation of childhood itself. He’s a weird animal creature that cries candy. So bizarre, yet so pure. He represents a very specific kind of fun, untethered from reality and free from all responsibility. But that’s no longer something Riley is able to do. During a pivotal moment in the film, where Joy and Bing Bong are trying to get out of a deep cavern before they’re forgotten forever, they attempt to use his song-powered imaginary rocket ship but their combined weight holds them down. Bing Bong then makes the decision to lighten the load so as to get Joy back to the surface. He sacrifices himself to make it easier for Riley to be happy, telling Joy to taker her to the Moon for him as he fades away forever. It’s an absolutely devastating moment, not only because it comes from a place of pure, selfless love shown by a sweet character, but because it’s the necessary parting of ways with ones childhood. And it’s almost too much to bear.
To conclude Riley’s arc, Joy selflessly steps out of the way. Sadness causes her to go back to her family instead of running, and rather than suppressing the emotion in favour of the kind of non-stop joy that simply cannot last, she finally lets her emotions out, confessing to her parents that she misses home. As they hug and break down together, Sadness takes Joy’s hand, and they work together to create a new core memory, one that’s a beautiful swirl of blue and yellow (like Joy herself), as Riley learns that it’s okay to be sad sometimes. It’s a simple thought on paper, but it’s one of life’s great learning experiences, one that we all share, and Inside Out turns it into an adventure. We also get a peek inside Mom & Dad’s brains for a minute, and while these scenes are mostly for the sake of gags, the detail therein is revelatory of how exactly the process works. Unlike Riley, the emotions in charge of her parents’ personalities aren’t Joy, but their own versions of Sadness and Anger. However, there’s a certain harmony to the interplay of their respective teams, and the negativity associated with those core personality traits isn’t allowed to be a problem. If anything, it’s a hopeful statement about how even when those emotions and feelings take over, and become a bigger part of our lives as we get older, we have the ability to be in control.
Perhaps Riley may eventually experience a shift in this dynamic, or perhaps Joy will always be her main motivating factor. Either way, the new core memories that make up her personality are shown to be combinations of each emotion, as she learns to process them and better understand herself while adjusting to a new life. Because in the end, it’s not about letting any one emotion win, or using ones joy to suppress our own innate negativity. It’s realizing that being sad or angry or afraid are all part of the journey of growing up, wherever that may end or begin. And as each of us steps further into adulthood, guided by the people in our lives as we guide them ourselves, the most important thing we can afford to learn, and perhaps the biggest comfort, is that we’re all in this together.