Review: Inside Out
By Floyd Rock
Riley, eleven, moves from Minnesota to San Francisco after her father gets a new job. The experience of relocating to a new city brings with it a variety of difficulties such as homesickness to anxiety involved with entering a new school in an unfamiliar city. If this was any normal movie about childhood that would be the center of its plot but Inside Out isn’t a normal movie about childhood. It’s the latest picture from Pixar’s Pete Docter, the director behind Monsters, Inc. and Up. He was first inspired by the idea for the picture when he started noticing changes in his daughter’s personality as she grew up. What makes Inside Out so special is what’s occurring within young Riley’s mind. Inside her head, and the minds of other people in the movie including her parents, is the personified embodiment of her emotions. Joy, Anger, Disgust, Fear, and Sadness are all represented by little color signified people operating her mind like a control room. These parts of her mind are not necessarily controlling all her specific decisions but rather the emotional motivation behind them and they monitor the memories that are produced from her day-to-day life. Sometimes significant memories are produced called core memories. These memories are housed in a special hub in the control room and are significant in defining key parts of Riley’s personality. The movie’s plot kicks off when the family first arrives in San Francisco and everything seems to be going wrong. Riley’s things haven’t arrived yet, her father is called away on business, and even the food is strange to her. Joy (Voiced by Amy Poehler) takes command of the situation, as she does many times, and tries to keep Riley’s mood in cheerful order. Her determination to keep Riley in positive spirits is tested when she first arrives at school. In a deeply embarrassing introduction to her new class Riley begins to cry which creates a new core memory, her first core memory defined by her sadness. Joy’s controlling nature gets the better of her and she tries to stop it from reaching the hub housing the rest of Riley’s core memories. But instead of stopping it she knocks all of Riley’s core memories out, disrupting the sections of her personality they represent, and sending them back through a transportation tube to another part of Riley’s mind. In the chaos both Joy and Sadness (Voiced by Phyllis Smith) are taken along with them.
The movie is not about a girl trying to fit in at a new school but about the development of her emotional maturity. Joy is the central figure in Inside Out, not Riley. Joy is driven by her only goal, to keep Riley happy. Though well intentioned she is oblivious to the possible self-serving nature of her pursuits and the hindrance her controlling nature exerts over the other emotions. Sadness in particular is kept from assisting them in guiding Riley emotionally. This imbalance is the cause of the initial disruption and once Joy and Sadness are out of control Riley is only left with her Anger, Disgust, and Fear to guide her actions. Through Joy and Sadness’ journey through Riley’s mind we discover that all our emotional states have their purpose and how unhealthy it is to ignore them. Sadness is important in the way people connect to one another. It is essential for developing the compassion and empathy that allows one another to create shared experiences, to relate to other people. Joy first witnesses this when she sees Sadness comforting a character they meet on their journey, Bing Bong (Voiced by Richard Kind), an imaginary friend Riley had when she was a few years old. Though a lot of the supporting characters are used mostly for comic relief and are kept underdeveloped Bing Bong is a clever addition to the movie’s cast. Though he has his own share of humorous uses it’s his representation of a part of childhood psyche that must eventually be cast aside on the path to adulthood that is the character’s biggest strength.
Like the control room in which Riley’s emotions work the rest of her head has been constructed into a physical space to represent parts of her personality and mind. Joy and Sadness spend much of their time in Long Term Memory, a labyrinth of shelves housing all the memories produced each day. The parts of her personality are defined by large sections that look like theme park attractions but little is spent inside them. Though Inside Out is the most abstract concept from Pete Docter’s work at Pixar it’s a little of a disappointment that the inside of Riley’s head is largely so clean with its office building design. There are a few moments of heightened abstract visual creativity like their attempt to wake Riley during a dream, which is created on a backlot like a Hollywood movie, and a dangerous form altering passage through Abstract Thinking, which morphs and compresses their bodies into smaller dimensions, but the moments are brief. They don’t quite reach the height of the space-bending chase sequence through conveyer belt doorways in Docter’s Monsters, Inc.
All faults aside, if skeptics have been dissatisfied with Pixar’s most recent work this is the one to convince them that they still have what made the studio such a success. Their creative concepts, colorful and imperfect characters, and emotional impact all delivered thoughtfully and with a steady supply of clever humor. Though its plot may not be as big as saving the world from a spiteful super villain or travelling across the world in a floating house what it says about small moments in our lives is important. On top of its analysis of emotional development this is also a movie about how people are not only defined by moments in their lives but that those instances that define them can gradually change and continue to develop as they grow older. The personal meaning of a memory and our memories themselves can shift and change over time. Emotional maturity may be defined by allowing those changes to occur, to accept the sadness that comes with them along with the joy.