Pixar’s newest entry into the canon of childhood exploration, Inside Out, plunges into the depths of the emotions that drive our lives, and how out of control they can sometimes seem. Most importantly it aims to show us that it’s okay to feel all of the feelings that make us whole. Riley – the body behind the brain – is an eleven-year-old girl who has been uprooted from her happy childhood in Minnesota and is forced to start anew in San Francisco with her family. Helping Riley navigate this life-changing event are the emotions in the headquarters of her mind – Joy (Amy Poehler), Fear (Bill Hader), Anger (Lewis Black), Disgust (Mindy Kaling), and Sadness (Phyllis Smith). However, up to this point in her life, Joy has been doing all she can to keep Sadness away from Riley’s daily life.
The opening of the film, setting up the world of how emotions and memories work, is terrific. It briskly establishes the interesting and surprisingly intricate rules of this world. Throughout Inside Out, I kept thinking back to my own “core memories” and the defining pieces of my own identity. For an animated film about an eleven-year-old girl, that’s an impressive feat.
The central problem that needs to be solved in the film happens when Joy and Sadness end up being sucked out of headquarters and into long-term memory (passing through Imagination land, Pre-school world, and Abstract thought). Fortunately Sadness has read all the manuals and is primed to lead Joy, and all the missing “core memories”, back to headquarters. For without those memories, or Joy at the helm, Riley’s emotions are left to Anger, Fear, and Disgust – hardly representing anyone’s best self, let alone a teenage girl trying to adapt to new surroundings.
One of the things I liked about Inside Out, being several decades past eleven myself, was that it speaks to how many of us feel most of the time. Everyone is trying to get joy back in charge of their emotions – regardless of whether we actually want to, or merely feel we should to save face – and that is not always an easy thing to do. It is important that people let their other emotions play their part as well. The movie does a wonderful job at, aside from its gorgeous color scheme and fast pacing, highlighting that growing up isn’t about being strong, or learning to control your emotions, it’s about being able to accept several emotions at the same time. After all, what is nostalgia but Joy with a helping of Sadness?