Inside Out is a triumph. It’s a film that provides ingenious insight into how those around us function—inside and out; a window for us to peer into the mechanics of peoples’ minds and watch their inner cogs twist and turn. We emerge realising that, although our cogs are disparate, deep down they all twist the same way. This surprisingly sagacious film communicates a profound level of empathy that’s, rather remarkably, achieved without pretension, didacticism or over-sentimentality. How? I’ve no idea. All I know is that Inside Out is Pixar back at their very best.
The movie, however, manages to dig even deeper. Its central message is complex and profound, yet startling simple: Inside Out shows us there’s joy in sadness and sadness in joy. The two emotions are nothing without the other. They are two halves, cut from the same cloth, relying on the other’s existence for their very own. To put such a meaningful philosophical message in (essentially) a kids’ film is a tremendously bold move. The genre is littered with simplistic messages and superficial morals wherein characters are colourful but lessons are black and white. Injecting the idea that the most negative of emotions plays a role of equal importance in a person’s life as the most positive is as challenging as it is (cough) emotional. This may, however, seem like a somewhat melancholic message for children and parents—far from it. It’s a universal one; a message that speaks to what it is, exactly, that makes us human. It’s beautiful.
Like many great works of art aimed primarily at children, Inside Out is an allegory. We are ushered through a world in which ideas, abstractions, memories and emotions—the very things that define who we are and dictate our day-to-day lives—take physical form. Tackling such a complex set-up necessitates a reductionist approach. Explaining the intricate dynamics of human behaviour is a massive undertaking, so reducing it to its most basic constituents—the most fundamental of human emotions—makes it truly greater than the sum of its parts. It is also a testament to how incredible the medium of animation can be. It’s hard to believe Inside Out would work as well if it were a live-action movie. Only with animation could a conceit this elaborate be dramatized so artfully. Only with animation could something this well designed and this well executed be brought to life so vividly and so brilliantly.
The action takes place inside the head of an 11-year-old girl, Riley (voiced by Kaitlyn Dias), who is coping with the first major emotional set-back of her life—her family have moved from Minnesota to San Francisco. Throughout the film, the drama cuts back and forth between two parallel storylines; one located inside Riley, one located around her. Seeing how the micro-world influences the macro-, and vice versa, is one of Inside Out’s greatest achievements. Stationed at the controls of Riley’s brain is a group of five personified emotions: Joy (Amy Poehler, in very much Leslie Knope-mode), Sadness (Phyllis Smith, who steals the show), Fear (Bill Hader), Anger (Lewis Black) and Disgust (Mindy Kaling).
“Aren’t you a little bundle of joy?” Riley’s dad asks his new-born baby in the first moments of her life. In the early stages of her life, Riley’s defining emotion is, indeed, that of Joy—the wide-eyed, pixie-haired, zealous ruler of the pack. However, the move out west has tinged Riley’s joyful memories of Minnesota with sadness. All her friends are gone and she longs to be back home. The movie brilliantly symbolises this through Sadness literally touching the memories of Riley’s past—her “core” memories, mind you; the ones that define Riley as a person. As a result, these memories no longer conjure feelings exclusively of merriment, but of despondency. Joy is not impressed. But, in an attempt to restrain Sadness’s input into Riley’s life, they both get sucked out into the depths of Riley’s brain. The quest is simple: they must get back. But the stakes are high. Without Joy or Sadness, Riley passes, not simply through depression, but through an early stage of depersonalisation brought on by the trauma of her new life. If Sadness and Joy don’t make it back, she can never go back to being herself.
Inside Out was directed by Pete Docter (of Up and Monsters, Inc. fame) and co-written by Docter, Meg LeFauve and Josh Cooley. Managing to set up a complex world, develop the characters, build relationships, initiate an adventure and have it resolved in just 94 minutes is—particularly with the rise of the two-hour-plus summer movie trope—an astonishing feat of screenwriting.
The fact that the filmmakers decided to make Riley a girl is also quietly revolutionary. Pixar has, to date, only one other film in their back catalogue that’s told from a female point of view (that being Brave). They often receive criticism for it. However, in Inside Out, the decision to have the action unfold in a little girl’s head is not only an attempt to address gender imbalance, it allows for some significant social commentary on femininity and the expectation placed on young girls to always “be happy”. True, boys are often (stupidly) expected to suppress certain emotions often attributed (again, stupidly) to weakness; masking their feelings with the reprehensible “man up” approach. But, generally, boys have much less pressure placed on them to constantly wear a smile. Or, to put it another way, boys will always be able to sulk, moan, mope and grumble without ever being told, “You know, you look much prettier when you smile.”
The moment in which Riley is tucked away in her sleeping bag on the barren floor of her new San Francisco home is one of the film’s most moving scenes. Her mother leans in and kisses her goodnight. “Through all this confusion,” she tells Riley, “you’ve stayed our happy girl.” Her mother insists that, “if you and I could just keep smiling, it’ll be a big help.” This moment will hit home to many parents. Asking kids to “cheer up” and “stop crying” is often a major part of a parent’s lexicon. But the notion of asking children to always remain positive, even in the face of adversity, does not make for a happy child. This integral scene between mother and daughter reveals a wise lesson about growing up: repressing sadness and denying it an outlet does not mean happiness will take its place. Sadness is not something that can be covered up and ignored. To lead a truly happy life one must experience joy, yes; but one must also experience sadness. Experiencing sadness also makes one appreciate and cherish that joy even more; often, in fact, leading directly to joy itself.
Joy, the character, learns this herself from her failed attempt at consoling Bing Bong (Riley’s former imaginary friend, voiced by Richard Kind) in his fear of being forgotten forever by Riley: “We just need to fix this!” exclaims Joy. “Here comes the tickle monster!” She then watches from the side-line as Sadness takes a moment to simply sit and listen to Bing Bong and his woes. After lamenting over the rather harrowing possibility about being forgotten—not just disappearing, but actually forgotten—he pulls himself together and decides to move on. Sadness gives him a shoulder to cry on and, in turn, he gives them a helping hand. “How’d you do that?” asks Joy, perplexed. Up until now, Joy had been entirely focused on removing, or at least minimising, the negative impact of Sadness—even going so far as to restrict her whereabouts, back at Headquarters, to that of a little chalk-drawn circle on the floor. Only now does it begin to dawn on her that Sadness plays a fundamental part too.
One of the most outstanding achievements of Inside Out is that it wonderfully delivers a sense of location within the most complex organ of the body. The way the brain is geographically mapped out and explored is inspired. But as well as being incredibly clever, Inside Out is also very funny. The film is full of visual gags, witty throw-away lines and sly pop-culture references. From the personification of psychological terminology to its gorgeously poignant depiction of fading memories, there is plenty to admire here. A particular favourite is the hazardous compartment of abstract thought, a sequence that is surely one of the most inventive pieces of animation Pixar has ever done (a place, incidentally, where Sadness hilariously claims, “If we don’t hurry, pretty soon we’ll be nothing but shape and colour!”). All of this makes for a real gem of a film; a moving, heartfelt tale that’s every bit as creative as it is clever.
Oh, and if you don’t tear up towards the end, I’m afraid your own little turtle-necked Sadness may be lost somewhere in the depths of your own brain, somewhere far away from Headquarters.