Inside Out

Unique storytelling is back

When I reviewed Monsters University two years ago, I implied that Pixar, while always producing entertaining films, was in the middle of a creative rut. Cars 2, Brave, and Monsters University were decent movies, but they lacked the creative ambition, unique storytelling, and authentic emotion that helped to propel Ratatouille, WALL-E, Up, and Toy Story 3 onto my year-end top movies lists from 2007 to 2010.

The movie introduces characters that all kids know but may not have ever really talked or thought about: the emotions inside their heads.

Part of the charm of WALL-E and Up was that they were not conventional stories that Hollywood normally throws in front of kids. Sure, WALL-E is about a robot—and what child doesn’t love robots?—but it’s a love story with an eco-friendly theme that features little-to-no dialogue in the first half of the movie. And Up’s tale of a socially awkward scout and a melancholic, elderly widower wove a heartfelt story without the aid of robots, monsters, or fast cars.

After a slight lull, Pixar has returned to unique storytelling with the release of Inside Out. The movie introduces characters that all kids know but may not have ever really talked or thought about: the emotions inside their heads.

The story focuses on the thoughts transpiring inside 11-year-old Riley’s brain. Joy (voiced by Amy Poehler) is the de facto leader of the emotions housed in Riley’s head. She is joined by Sadness (Phyllis Smith, best known as Phyllis from The Office), Fear (Bill Hader), Disgust (Mindy Kaling), and Anger (comedian Lewis Black). They’re not just the voices inside Riley’s head but also the supporting actors and plot twists all in one.

As Riley reacts to eating broccoli for the first time, processes her parents’ disciplinary actions, or adjusts to moving from Minnesota to San Francisco, the emotional characters act out with her. Joy tries to keep Riley cheerful and sees her role as one that negotiates with the other emotions in order to win out and make Riley a happy child. Joy relates the least to Sadness, and tries to keep her mopey counterpart at bay. Joy asks Sadness not to touch Riley’s memories, or to run the emotional control panel that all emotions can touch but Joy tries to control. The characters’ collective efforts culminate daily with sending the day’s emotional transactions (which look like large marbles) into Riley’s memory bank and helping to build happy and long-lasting core memories.

When Sadness accidentally touches—and dampens—a Riley memory, Joy tries to overcompensate, which eventually leads to the two of them located out of the emotional headquarters and stuck in Riley’s memory bank. Meanwhile, Fear, Anger, and Disgust fight to keep Riley stable, while Joy and Sadness frantically try to return to Riley’s active brain. With a new school, no friends, and a tardy moving truck that is carrying the family’s belongings, Riley struggles to cope with her new surroundings, especially without Joy and Sadness in her brain.

Aside from solely being an interesting premise for an animated movie, the movie succeeds at not oversimplifying kids’ emotional states by making them think that they need to be happy all the time. Yes, the emotions are compartmentalized as the plot plays out, but the movie teaches that we’re complex beings with intertwined feelings. One emotion can dominate a personality, but all of them together have a purpose in forming who a person really is. Sometimes joy emerges out of sadness, or disgust morphs into anger; whatever the case, it’s all normal human behavior.

There are a few cases where the writers rely on stereotypes, such as the emotions in the dad’s brain watching a game while the emotions in the mom’s brain try to engage Riley (um, guilty!), or when Riley is disgusted by broccoli (toss fresh florets in olive oil, spread on a rimmed cookie sheet, bake at 400 degrees for 30 minutes, stirring once—there’s nothing to gag about that).

Overall, however, the movie doesn’t play things safe. It chooses wit over slapstick, and storytelling over shenanigans, making it a great movie for parents and kids. The movie, like Up and Wall-E, doesn’t really lend itself to a sequel, but that notion is also encouraging; it makes me think Pixar isn’t only thinking about franchises. And maybe Inside Out will start a new string of Pixar originals.


3.5 out of 4 stars. Rated PG. Three generations saw this film together, ranging in age from 9 to 75. While the 75-year old fell asleep for 15 minutes, everyone enjoyed the movie.