I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it again: with few exceptions, I love Pixar movies. No other production company I know puts out feature-length family-friendly fare of such consistently high quality. And as one who teaches family studies, I’ve been most partial to those stories with a strong family theme: The Incredibles and Up (especially that heart-wrenching opening sequence!) come immediately to mind.
With Inside Out, co-directed and written by Pete Docter and Ronaldo Carmen, Pixar has given us what may be their most creative work yet. It’s not just an excellent family movie; it’s an excellent movie, period.
The story plays out on a dual landscape: the inside and the out. The external story line centers on 11-year-old Riley Anderson (Kaitlyn Dias), a generally cheerful girl who faces a crisis when Mom (Diane Lane) and Dad (Kyle MacLachlan) decide they must move cross-country from Minnesota to San Francisco. Riley is torn away from her neighborhood, school, and hockey team, and their new home is a dump.
The internal story line, where the genius of the movie resides, takes place mostly inside Riley’s head, where various emotions strive for control — literally. Each emotion is a character in the story: Joy (Amy Poehler), a relentlessly cheery pixie who shines with her own golden light; pudgy blue Sadness (Phyllis Smith), always the pessimist; purple Fear (Bill Hader), who sees catastrophe around every corner; Anger (Lewis Black), a stout red fireplug who shoots flames from his head; and Disgust (Mindy Kaling), a green, fashion-conscious snob. The five work together at a command console, influencing Riley’s actions and decisions through memories (bowling ball-sized globes, each tinged with the hue of its dominant emotion) and ideas (light bulbs, of course).
Joy only wants Riley to be happy — and so do Riley’s parents, who are preoccupied with everything that’s already gone wrong with move. Riley, not wanting to be a burden, keeps her emotions to herself. This is the point at which we would normally ask, “What’s going on inside her head?”
Pixar shows us.
Without giving away too much of the story (although you may be able to anticipate where it will go), the internal plot hinges on the relationship between Joy and Sadness. Sadness feels compelled to touch Riley’s memory globes, even her precious golden “core” memories, threatening to turn them blue. In the scuffle between Joy and Sadness, both are sucked out of the command tower and deposited in the wilderness of long-term memory. From there, they must make their hazardous journey back, with the help of Bing Bong (Richard Kind), a quirky imaginary friend from Riley’s younger days.
For the record, the script’s metaphors get the physiology of long-term memory all wrong, portraying it as a vast storehouse of globes, like a library of DVDs, any of which can be retrieved for playback. That’s not how memory works in reality.
But never mind. That’s not central to the story, and this is rich material for humor. Two drones who work in long-term memory are selecting globes to be discarded (forgotten). They decide that she doesn’t need to remember certain phone numbers (“They’re in her phone!”) and that the only thing she’ll retain from her piano lessons is “Chopsticks” and “Heart and Soul.” In contrast, they proudly display the one memory that will never leave her: a commercial jingle that she literally can’t get out of her head.
This is high-concept stuff. Indeed, there are moments in which the script seems a little too smart. Joy and Sadness, watching parts of Riley’s personality crumble before them, are in a rush to catch the Train of Thought (yes, an actual train) back to the command center. Bing Bong therefore takes them on a shortcut through Abstract Thought, where the characters promptly deconstruct into geometric shapes, like something out of a Picasso nightmare.
Apart from such occasional hiccups (which others may appreciate much more than I did), the movie is an imaginative gem. There are emotionally difficult moments: Bing Bong’s fate, for example, is heroically sad. And there are some potentially frightening ones: beware the scene in Riley’s subconscious if your child has a clown phobia (but don’t miss the banter between the guards of the subconscious, provided by Muppet veterans Dave Goelz and Frank Oz). The device of zooming inside a character’s head provides the movie’s funniest moments, from the gendered miscommunication between Mom and Dad (this should have some couples elbowing each other) to the real inside story of the difference between dogs and cats (you’ll have to watch the end credits to catch this).
But it’s the family moments that should resonate most deeply with the parents in the audience. We’re given, of course, our requisite happy ending, but one punctuated by Joy’s sunny but naive voice over: “Riley’s 12 now. What could happen?”
Oh, the stories that could follow a question like that.
Inside Out teaches without preaching. I am sometimes troubled, for example, by the way in which some Christians seem to believe that faith entails the denial of negative emotion. The movie gives us an alternative: an emotional life that has a place for both joy and sadness, and a family life in which parents make it safe for children to experience and express both.