When I think of Pixar, what impresses me most is not just the quality of their films, but of the unparalleled consistency of said quality. For two whole decades they’ve managed to crank out hit after hit, with even their “bad” movies having more heart, humor, and personality than 90% of the dreck that comes out of Hollywood these days.
Even in the wake of other studios like Dreamworks and Sony Pictures Animation making their own animated gems, Pixar continues to be the gold standard for animated films that are essentially for kids but still have enough references and winks to keep the older crowd grinning.
With Inside Out, we have our 15th full length feature from the house that brought us Woody and Buzz Lightyear. It’d be so easy for me to just say this is another excellent performance from the Disney-owned studio, but there’s a bit more going on under the surface that’s worth consideration.
Inside Out is an exploration of our emotions and how they affect us.
It presents our minds as a vast landscape, with each area focused on a different aspect of what makes us the people we are. The biggest areas in the back are reserved for massive storage shelves of long-term memories, where they’re sifted through and either left to sit or evacuated as necessary. Closer to middle are the core memories, and these are major life events that shape the different facets of our personality. In the middle lies the headquarters, the control center of our brains where our basic human emotions live, controlling the memories that are made and distributed to their rightful place.
Joy, Sadness, Fear, Anger, and Disgust each have their place in the headquarters, and they all work together to keep Riley a healthy, happy 11-year old. It’s a bit of a tenuous balancing act at times, but stable.
When Riley’s parents move the family from their happy Minnesota life to the strange, foreign San Francisco, things get thrown out of whack pretty quickly as trying to fit in at a new school, make new friends, and other things cause havoc in her emotional core. Joy and Sadness find themselves lost in the vastness of the long-term memories while Fear, Anger, and Disgust are left to handle things on their own, a task they’re clearly not up to dealing with.
Once the basic premise is set up the main story beats of Inside Out are pretty predictable. If you’ve seen any number of Pixar movies over the years you won’t be surprised to see the exploration of themes like loneliness, the struggle of growing up, and learning something about yourself and how to come to terms with one’s shortcomings.
What this movie lacks in narrative creativity, however, it more than makes up for in sheer Pixar-ness. It never ceases to amaze me how they explore many of the same plot threads time and time again but continue to make each new world unique and beguiling.
In much the same way that Monsters, Inc. took a kernel of an idea and built an impressively detailed and fascinatingly imaginative world around it, Inside Out manages to take an abstract concept like human personality and turn it into a living, functional world that is colorful, whimsical, and makes total sense.
The idea of our core memories shaping us and being hub centers, the rows and rows of distant long-term memories collecting dust in the backs of our minds, the process of how dreams are made, the deep, dark chasm below it all into which memories are forgotten, even the locked away dungeon of our subconscious that houses our deepest fears–they’re all accounted for.
Half the fun is simply seeing all these complex mental processes brought to life in such tangible, easily relatable ways.
The casting is on par with the studio’s best features, and the performers own their characters. Occasionally we get glimpses of the emotional control rooms of Riley’s parents, and while these scenes are disappointingly rare, they’re amusing and are effective at showing different perspectives of the same basic core emotions that we all carry inside us.
Along the way, Joy and Sadness’ journey back to the headquarters teaches them not necessarily how to get along, but how each of them is valuable to Riley. Joy wants Riley to be happy all the time, but by shutting Sadness out it only leads to making things worse as the mopey, blue-faced girl can’t help herself but try to be an equal part in Riley’s life.
This idea of accepting all parts of one’s emotional range reveals undertones that gave Inside Out a whole other level of meaning for me.
When compared to the rest of Pixar’s stable of masterpieces, this film isn’t the laugh-out-loud funniest and it’s not as heavy on the “feels” as some of the others. It doesn’t even have a villain other than Riley’s own internal struggle. Kids who haven’t yet had to think about what makes them unique within themselves probably won’t recognize the more subtle ideas, but any adult who’s ever given any thought to their emotions, memories, and feelings–both good and bad–will likely agree that one’s own inner turmoil can be the greatest and most realistic villain of all.
More than any other Pixar film before it, Inside Out is a psychologist’s wet dream in terms of making you reflect on how your emotional state can affect not just your behavior, but the kind of person you become. As Riley’s conflict grows, the visual representation of watching her goofy core crumble into the pit of forgotten memories, with her friendship core and family core next in line to fracture, I couldn’t help but think of the different aspects of my own personality and how deeply it would shake me to be in a similar state.
There’s a good chance many people won’t be as affected as I was by the underlying themes here, but the biggest one is easily identifiable and is a good lesson for everyone. In the best kind of bright, fanciful Pixar way possible, Joy, Fear, Anger, Disgust, and Sadness teach us that only by being in touch with all our emotions, recognizing that some memories will inevitably be lost, and learning how to create new core memories are we able to grow as people and discover amazing new aspects of ourselves.
If you’re not much of an emotional person, there’s still a lot to love about Pixar’s latest. It’s another incredible adventure in a world few of us ever think about, packaged and presented with the usual level of polish and style we’ve come to expect over the years.
If you’re anything like me though, and have spent any significant time over those years contemplating who you are, what makes you happy, sad, and everything in between, and how it all fits together, you’ll be able to appreciate Inside Out on a much deeper level.