Review: Inside Out
When I was 10 years old, my family moved from San Diego, California to New Bedford, Massachusetts. I cried endlessly some nights leading up to the move. In Reno, I saw for the first time what a sea of city lights in a desert looks like at night, an image I have never shaken. In Iowa, I prayed as a tornado twisted out of the sky some half a mile from our gray 12 seater Ford, before dissipating mercifully without touching the ground. And once we reached New Bedford, I will never forget the feeling of being in a new place, permanently. The sense that this would only be a visit, that we’d go back to San Diego sooner than later. The fear that I’d never adjust to life here. The curiosity of being surrounded by a place so utterly new.
Inside Out, the latest film from Pixar, directed by Pete Docter, is about an 11-year old named Riley (Kaitlyn Dias) grappling with her family moving far from her childhood home. In how it addresses that premise it reveals a lot of truths in its heart, truths that came flooding back to me as I watched it. The swirling, vivid power of emotions in children is chief among them.
Few films are so earnest and thoughtful about the thoughts and emotions of adolescents. Even fewer of those films are about girls. It’s right for a film about an 11-year-old to feature emotions as the protagonists. Inside Out’s greatest strength is that it takes Riley’s emotions so seriously.
Inside Out features one of the most high-concept premises yet for a Pixar film. It plays out mostly within Riley’s mind, where Joy (Amy Poehler), Sadness (Phyllis Smith), Anger (Lewis Black), Fear (Bill Hader), and Disgust (Mindy Kaling) collaborate to get her through each day with optimal emotional stability. Each new memory that Riley forms takes the form of an orb, color coded to each character. Joy is bright yellow, and she takes pride in pointing out how overwhelmingly yellow each day’s supply of memories is. Important memories shoot straight to Riley’s emotional core, taking shape as a sort of theme park tied to something that matters immensely to her; at the outset of the film we see Family, Honesty, Friendship, Goofiness, and Hockey. They are from Minnesota, I suppose.
The emotions and the world they inhabit are rendered as lovingly as we have come to expect from Pixar. The characters are well-tailored to their voices. As a longtime Parks and Recreation fan, it’s impossible not to see a bit of Leslie Knope in Joy’s unrelenting desire to please. Sadness is a brilliant little meatball of a character, like Eeyore with less self-esteem and a knit sweater. Joy assumes the leadership role early in the film, but it’s Sadness who emerges as the film’s most dynamic character. The bulk of the film plays out over about 24 hours in Riley’s life, immediately after her family moves to a new home in San Francisco. Joy displays Riley’s daydreams about their new home with great pride. Those come crashing down as we see the house is a sort of modest, sort of cramped Victorian. The film uses this moment, the New House moment that anyone who moved as a kid remembers vividly, to run Riley through more or less every feeling possible in a few short moments. It’s an effective sequence; we get to see how deftly director Pete Docter cycles through these characters without ham-handedly speaking in broad metaphors. Joy, Sadness and company aren’t merely acting parallel to Riley’s interests; they care about her and are trying as hard as they can to keep her stable in a time of intense instability.
Joy’s overbearing attitude overflows into dangerous controlling when she realizes that Sadness can touch any memory and alter it. She literally draws a circle on the ground and asks Sadness not to move from it. Sadness does. Antics ensure, resulting in Joy and Sadness falling out of their control booth into the deep recesses of Riley’s mind. Fear, Disgust, and Anger are left to hold fort, and a family dinner predictably turns ugly as a result. During this dinner, we also peer into the minds of her parents (voiced by Diane Lane and Kyle McLachlan). There are perhaps a few too many reductive gender norms going on here. The mom is the more emotionally in tune with Riley, nudging her husband to pay attention to the conversation as his mind drifts to memories of a hockey game. But the characters are vividly rendered through their own sets of feelings, and the miscommunications that ensue- resulting in Riley losing her cool at her parents and her dad snapping at her- are both very funny in their execution and sad in their emotional truth.
The film’s long center period meanders perhaps a bit too long on Joy and Sadness’s literal journey back to their headquarters. They wander through trains of thought (a literal train), long-term memories (vast, towering hallways of fading memory orbs), and abstractions (I won’t spoil how this one plays out, but Chuck Jones would be proud). Dreams are made by a film production studio, and forgotten memories reside in a pit at the bottom of a canyon. Docter has a lot of fun coming up with literal versions of internal ideas. Wisely, we never get to see too much of them; Docter fills the edges of the screen with details, giving each location a sense of fullness and life that we don’t get to see in their entirety.
Inside Out takes its time to get Joy and Sadness back home, but in doing so it slowly reveals its thoughtfulness. Sadness, it turns out, is not simply a conduit for misery. The film also avoids truisms such as “we need sadness to know what joy is”. It is wiser than that. Sadness is part of the complete portrait of our lives. Acknowledging it, letting it happen, is healthy. It’s okay to be sad might be something we teach kindergarteners, but it’s rare to see a film demonstrate it so effectively. Typically sadness is simply a blip on a hero’s journey, a fall from which the protagonist can rise triumphantly. Inside Out‘s climax is not a moment of gleeful victory, but familial acknowledgment and validation of melancholy: Things aren’t so great right now, and it’s okay to feel bad about that.