There are certain things we’ve come to expect from Pixar movies: They will be funny and charming; your heart will be warmed, but not overly saccharinized; you’re going to cry; there will be one or two jokes that are never raunchy but adult enough to feel borderline racy. Oh, and every kid in the audience is going to have the time of their little lives. That is a high bar that Pixar continues to clear in all aspects, usually in spades, with only brief diversions (sorry, Cars 2, you were terrible). So it really shouldn’t be surprising (though it should be impressive) to hear that with their latest, Inside Out, Pixar has outdone even themselves.
Inside Out is the story of a young girl named Riley, but she’s not really our protagonist. Instead, that role is filled by a Herman’s Head-type situation inside Riley’s head. We know this girl only through the emotional control room of her brain. When she’s born, her only companion is Joy (voiced to absolute perfection—which is a qualifier that can be applied to literally every cast member— by Amy Poehler), who witnesses and guides her development, sending little balls of memories to various departments in the vast, sprawling factory campus that is Riley’s mind. As Riley encounters new experiences, more controllers show up: Fear (Bill Hader), Anger (Lewis Black, obviously), Disgust (Mindy Kaling), and Sadness (The Office’s Phyllis Smith). The visuals of the land that is Riley’s mind are beautiful, and they are clever— beyond the central control room are the islands that make up her personality: Goofball Island, Family Island, etc— but as gorgeous as you know Pixar visuals can be, they are nothing compared to the emotional landscape here.
Our main story starts when Riley is 11 and her family moves from Minnesota to San Francisco. Joy is still running the show, but all the other feelings play a big role in the brain— except for Sadness, who doesn’t really know what her purpose is. She seems to just get in the way and muck things up. When Joy and Sadness accidentally get swept away into the outside brain land, we’re thrust into an action caper with the two emotions trying to get back to the control room. We watch them careen through this world, through Imaginationland as well as the darker, as of yet unexplored Subconscious. But the amazing part is that the stakes for this rampage are higher than in almost any straight action movie out there, because every wrong turn means total destruction to a young, vulnerable girl.
Riley, you see, has had a good life. She is a happy girl. This is documented clearly in the vast superiority of the Joyous color coded memory orbs that adorn her brain factory. But at the age of 11, in adjusting to a difficult cross-country move, leaving her friends and her home, she’s dealing with a range of emotions she hadn’t previously experienced. The pressure of being an unfailing Happy Girl suddenly obstructs her actual happiness. And while we would obviously automatically empathize with a sweet young girl going through an emotional ordeal, personifying each of her separate feelings means that we, as an audience, have five separate emotional young girls to empathize with. And that, my friends, is simply exhausting. Exhausting in a way that very honestly reminds us what is was to be that age, and also what it is to be a human of any age. One of my greatest wishes is that I could watch this movie as a small child, to feel the urge to laugh at some of Sadness’ early lines, rather than have them hurt my heart on an entirely too personal level. There are a few moments during which we get to see inside the heads of Riley’s parents, and they are, no doubt, hilarious, but also come with a great profundity just by looking at who has the center seat—occupied in Riley, and, I’m sure, all of us at the start, by Joy— of those adult brains. This is a film about a child learning to acknowledge her feelings, to deal with multiple simultaneous emotions. And when Joy and Sadness both disappear at once, what is left for a child to feel? The depth to which this girl’s emotional life is portrayed is so honest as to feel borderline invasive. Inside Out is the most honest and realistic depiction of depression I can remember seeing in any movie ever, let alone one designed primarily for children.
Now, of course this movie isn’t without its faults. For a 90-minute runtime, the plot still manages to muddy itself up and drag more than a bit. (There are only so many times you can watch characters get thrown back to square one before things get tiresome.) But it doesn’t matter. Not even really a little. Because this movie, for a movie all about emotions, took me on a ride I wasn’t entirely prepared for. The things this girl (and, really, her controller counterparts) go through are likely to hit you in an all too personal place. As Riley forms her core memories, yours will likely come bubbling to the surface (probably through your tear ducts). As she struggles with too many emotions, yours will feel the pull. The movie is an fun action adventure, but the real adventure is what this movie will do to your heart. Leave your cynicism at home— or bring it, I dare you— and let Pixar do what it does best: destroy you, and emotionally remold you, in the most beautiful way possible.
Vivian Kane wants to make sure you get there early for the short and stay to the very end for the best cat joke ever put to animation.