1. Considering how many Pixar films seem designed solely to trigger your tear ducts, it’s fitting that the studio has finally made a film that is specifically about sadness. Inside Out is full of the bright colors and wacky characters and madcap hijinks you’ve come to expect, but it’s ultimately a movie about loss. Sure, it’s a wistful movie about loss —one with a positive message and plenty of big laughs— but also one that has very real, powerful, and frank things to say about sorrow, melancholy, and despair. For a movie that is ostensibly for children, it amazingly captures how these universal aspects of the human condition are not to be overcome, but embraced. It argues that sadness might be the most important, and maybe the most enduring, emotion of all. Quite a bet for a movie like this to make.
2. The premise here is that there are five emotions—Joy, Sadness, Fear, Disgust, and Rage—constantly battling for control of your personality and, more importantly, your memories. (In Pixar’s universe, these are all friendly emotions working together, though in my experience their interactions tend to be more combative.) In this case, they’re working with Riley, an 11-year-old girl who has spent her life being mostly happy, thanks in large part to the work of Joy, who is voiced by Amy Poehler. (The role is one Poehler was born to play, and the movie almost feels written specifically for her; parts of it seem sprung solely from her offscreen personality.) But then Riley’s parents move her from Minnesota to San Francisco, and all of a sudden, strange things start happening in Riley’s Headquarters. Happy memories, labeled as such by Joy’s yellow, start turning Sadness Blue, and whole personality traits (represented by places like Family Land and Goofball Central) start fading away and imploding, replaced by ... nothing, just an emptiness and an increasingly important role for Rage. This is a movie about what happens when a happy young girl starts to become angry, sullen, and depressed. This is a movie about when entire emotions and personality traits get shut down.
3. There are all sorts of plot machinations in place to explain all this; sometimes they work, and sometimes they don’t. After a while, I stopped trying to keep track of how what was happening inside Riley’s head was affecting what was happening outside it (and vice versa). The middle section, in which Joy and Sadness try to work together to get back into Riley’s emotional “headquarters,” drags a little; ultimately, we don’t care whether or not they can catch the “Train of Thought” to the Long-Term Memory Chute as much as we care about whether little Riley is going to be okay. The world of Riley’s brain is an inventive one —I got a particular kick out of “Dream Productions,” a place where hackneyed Hollywood clichés are produced by bored directors just to get through the night—and the concept is so fun. But Inside Out is ultimately about the destination, not the journey. Why is this child so sad? Is she going to be all right? Is this going to happen to all of us? Has it already?
4. That’s the most daring aspect of Inside Out: the quiet sensation that Joy is something that loses power as childhood ends, and that Sadness isn’t just inevitable, it’s the default state. We meet a character named Bing Bong, Riley’s imaginary friend who rattles around her long-term memory but is always in danger of being “memory dumped,” something that was once so important and jubilant for Riley but now may fade away forever. Don’t worry: The movie never quite goes all the way with the notion that Joy and innocence and hope fade as you get older, but it’s certainly implied. (For one thing, we get occasional glimpses into other people’s heads, which lead to some great jokes, but I still can’t help but think they’re plot missteps. Showing inside adults’ heads gives us a context that sucks some of the drama out of Riley’s stakes.) Joy has won the battles for Riley’s personality for the first 11 years. But the next 50 are going to be a lot tougher. Joy is closer to the memory dump than she thinks. The movie creeps up to this realization, but then tiptoes away.
5. Inside Out is terrific, but it’s so good at conjuring up almost primal emotions that its (understandable) desire to have us leaving the theater in a happy mood almost feels like a copout. The arc of this movie isn’t about Joy overcoming Sadness: It’s about learning that Sadness is going to win no matter what, so you just have to do what you can to just hang on, to make sure you don’t go away entirely. The film does such a convincing job creating this intricate world, and explaining why Sadness is so powerful and so important, that you come away knowing that this is about the loss of childhood and all that comes with it. Which is really sad! In making Inside Out is entertaining and funny and energetic while covering lament, loss, and death, Pixar might have touched on something more powerful than they even wanted to here. In the world they’ve set up, Joy loses power as Fear, and Rage, and Sadness gain it. In turn, this kids movie is about how awful it is that they won’t be kids forever. There are cute dogs and big laughs—the movie’s so bright it can distract from it’s underlying darkness—but Pixar’s main achievement here is definitively proving their ability to make you cry on command. And, man, this time you’ll really mean it.
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