Not only is Inside Out the most profound motion picture to come out of the superb Pixar camp, it’s one of the most profound animated features of all-time. It has as its subject no less than the totality of what it means to be a human being, with Pete Docter’s impeccable direction taking things to levels few modern movies attempt.
This 2015 film is largely based on the experiences of Docter, but the themes are universal and can apply to any human being on the face of the earth. It contends with five core emotions, originally starting with six core emotions as identified by psychologist Paul Ekman. Docter and screenwriters Meg LeFauve and Josh Cooley draw some serious and deep material out of this foundation, to say the least.
The picture begins with the birth of a girl named Riley (Kaitlyn Dias) and contends with the emotions in her head: Joy (Amy Poehler), Sadness (Phyllis Smith), Fear (Bill Hader), Disgust (Mindy Kaling), and Anger (Lewis Black). Joy seems to be the ringleader and she attempts to concentrate Riley’s attention on positive things, influencing actions and memories to tilt toward a happier worldview.
But things get complicated when Riley gets older and the family moves from their native Minnesota to San Francisco. Suddenly, Joy has to work a lot harder to expedite positive emotions. She tries to lock Sadness away for a time, but a new core memory is made before she can intervene. Joy tries to suppress this memory, leading to an adventure through Riley’s mind that tracks through some very interesting places.
The cause of Riley’s emotions could be anything, as the experiences inside are universal. It’s the feelings that count; the reactions to events like the move to San Francisco matter more than the events themselves. When certain emotions flood the board, so to speak, Riley’s reactions facilitate the arrival of other more complex feelings. And so on.
Interestingly, it’s Joy’s attempts at insisting on happiness as Riley’s raison d’être that leads to the most trouble. She sees no reason for the girl to feel any other way. She doesn’t see the significance of Sadness or Disgust or Anger and insists that all moments are covered in her particular shade of happy, happy, Joy, Joy.
This is Docter’s most perceptive piece of commentary, but he never hammers the audience over the head with it. Joy’s lack of emotional literacy mirrors society at large, with a general insistence on purging any undesirable feelings in favour of more palatable experiences. Check out the average Facebook wall and a litany of “positive thinking” tropes will flood through in a flurry of orange. The expulsion of all things “negative,” from feelings to actual people, is vastly encouraged.
But what’s really at stake when humans drown out the other emotions for the sake of one? The whole system’s out of whack and the emotional imbalance leads to a sort of numbness. Docter illustrates this in a number of ways, like when he leaves Disgust, Fear and Anger in charge after Sadness and Joy are left to wander Riley’s mind.
The symbolism in Inside Out is rich and subtle. Consider the train of thought, represented by an actual train that travels around Riley’s mind. It is often aimless, showing up in peculiar places and tapping into outlets at random. This train travels over the Memory Dump, which is naturally where memories go to die.
There are also the personality islands, which crumble and can be rebuilt into different islands. These elements, represented in Riley’s life by things like Hockey and Family and Friendship, are the building blocks of one’s Self and yet not. Docter has his character go through an incredible but absolutely common progression, constructing all new islands along the way.
If Inside Out seems deep, it is. It’s also the embodiment of the completely normal, completely common human experience. Riley’s life is not exceptional and the inner experiences aren’t either. All people have core memories, subconscious wastelands, imaginations, suppressed feelings, and so on. But what Docter does with this interior design is remarkable.
The animation is wondrous, elaborate and vivid, from the outside world of Riley’s life to the inner workings of her brain. Docter and Co. even play with abstract animation during an exhilarating sequence involving Riley’s intangible thoughts and the depletion of dimensions that comes with it. There’s even a loving homage to My Neighbor Totoro, only involving a horrifying clown.
From the voice acting to the emotional mass to the sheer artistic quality, Inside Out is an outstanding movie. Docter’s picture proves that animation doesn’t have to be a genre prone to cheap and pointless prattle built with the intention of distracting kids while allowing adults to sneak in a nap. It’s one of the very best films of 2015 and one of the finest offerings Pixar has to offer – and that’s saying a lot.