Published on June 23rd, 2015 | by Dan Gvozden



For most, the prospect of sitting in a theater and watching the newest Pixar film is an invitation to openly weep in front of groups of strangers and loved ones. Despite their recent stumblings, the forgettable Brave, Cars 2, and Monsters University, few storytellers have the ability to trigger the emotional centers of audiences’ minds quite like the artists at Pixar. So it is fitting that their latest film, Inside Out, is a cinematic adventure starring personified emotions located in a fictionalized version of the human mind.

maxresdefaultThat mind belongs to the young Riley Anderson whose happy, goofy, friend-filled, honest, hockey-loving life is upended when her family is suddenly uprooted from Minnesota to San Francisco, a city, the film rightly comments, that cannot even get pizza correct. The film begins with Riley’s birth, alongside the birth of her various emotions, singularly colored characters that work in a space in Riley’s conscious mind, known to them as “Headquarters.” It is there that these five emotions, Joy, Sadness, Disgust, Fear, and Anger, guide Riley’s actions. Each has a distinct job to do, with Joy taking the lead, except for Sadness who is routinely pushed aside and cast as a potential danger to Riley’s memories and happiness.

Inside Out works hard to establish all the complex rules of how Riley’s mind, memories, personality, and emotions function and in doing so creates a stunning and versatile pop psychology metaphor. The idea that our emotions take turns controlling our mind in an effort to claim various memories as their own could change the way that people, especially children, discuss their emotions forever. Like any great idea it is simple to communicate but endlessly applicable and complicated, just like the human mind. Where most writers would stop with the commonly good idea of personifying human emotions, see “Herman’s Head” from the 90’s, Pixar continues to develop and complicate that initial spark of brilliance with countless additions that enrich the original idea and deepen the profound metaphor they’ve established.

Director Pete Doctor (Monsters, Inc., Up) has never been so assured or invisible in his direction. Gone here are the obvious, if effective, emotional manipulations of his previous films that had audiences crying minutes before their final emotional climax. Inside Out continues to INSIDE-OUT-19amuse, thrill, and overwhelm in clever new ways, be it a trip to “Abstract Thought” or even “Imagination Land.” Here it is the small, unexpected things, like a memory that slowly fades away or a reunion with a forgotten imaginary friend, that trigger the greatest emotional response.

Inside Out does not a waste a second, every new idea or image pays off at some eventual future in sometimes completely unexpected ways. What might start as a sight gag involving a fictional boyfriend could quickly turn into a key part of a dynamic action set-piece. Doctor and team’s visuals are not quite as unique or striking in design as previous Pixar films but this simplicity is a benefit to Inside Out’s story. The streamlined visuals help the film quickly establish a clear and consistent visual code, often communicated through distinct emotional colorings that audiences are meant to connect back to the film’s main characters.

Each of the emotions is supported by an incredible vocal talent, Amy Poehler (Joy), Phyllis Smith (Sadness), Bill Hader (Fear), Lewis Black (Anger), and Mindy Kaling (Disgust), who help to sell their different attitudes towards their work. When characters are locked into expressing only one emotion or viewpoint for an entire film it can often reduce them to becoming one-note and conflict-free. It is commendable then that Inside Out’s characters are consistent throughout but also complicated and conflicted about what their role in Riley’s life is to be.

inside-out-pixarJoy’s routine dismissal of Sadness has them both accidentally ejected from “Headquarters” and lost in “Long-Term Memory” along with Riley’s core memories, the very building blocks of her personality. This triggers a reaction from Riley who cries in front of her class on the first day of her new school, quits hockey, hides away in her room, lies to her parents, and even contemplates running away. The balance between Riley’s life and Joy and Sadness’s adventures to return to “Headquarters” are viscerally exciting but also deeply emotional. The ties between the actions of the emotions and how Riley behaves in the real world always conform to an easy to digest logic that enhances the metaphor and dramatic tension that every wrong move could have devastating effects on Riley’s mental well-being.

Because of these complexities, Inside Out, like Pixar’s best films, is a film written for adults that children can enjoy. Despite not being a parent myself, I can recognize Joy’s unrelenting quest to make Riley happy to be a direct mirror to the challenges of parenting. However, her intentions aren’t without unintentional error. Riley’s loss of innocence and childlike wonder might be devastating to her powerful, joyful emotions that controlled her for so long, but are also necessary for her to establish a path towards the emotional complexities of adulthood. As a former high school teacher I’ve seen parents do everything they can to make their children as happy and joyful as possible, just as Joy does here, only to rob them of the necessary outlet that sadness and emotional diversity can provide.

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About the Author

Do you remember that dorky kid from elementary school who loved movies and comic books? Dan's him, but an adult... well in most senses of the word. All that matters is that he's an aficionado of all things pop culture and wants to share his interests with the world.

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