Pixar’s new film Inside Out follows five anthropomorphized emotions as they vie for control of an 11-year-old girl’s mind, and it seems apropos that the two emotions we get to know the best are Joy (voiced by Amy Poehler) and Sadness (played by The Office’s Phyllis Smith). Certainly, the last two decades of Pixar movies have brought audiences and critics plenty of joy, and to judge from Inside Out’s rapturously received Cannes Film Festival bow this morning — which led Variety’s Peter Debruge to call Pixar’s 15th film “one of those rare movies that transcends the medium” — there will be plenty of smiles this summer when Inside Out comes out Stateside.
But sadness is an integral part of the Pixar formula, too. Think of Toy Story 3’s tearful finale, or Toy Story 2’s gut-punching Sarah MacLachlan number. Audiences famously wept during the first ten minutes of Up, and when I saw Wall-E again last month (on a bar television with the sound muted, no less), I got watery three times before the first act had even finished. In the same way that older audiences used to cite the death of Bambi’s mother as an emotional childhood memory and reference point, it seems clear now that for kids today, Pixar’s oeuvre will provide the same function: They’re the movies that help children understand that sadness is a part of life.
Ingeniously, that’s the actual theme of Inside Out, though it takes a while to reveal itself. When we first meet the emotions hanging out in the head of young Riley, it’s clear that Joy reigns supreme. Every so often, Fear (Bill Hader), Disgust (Mindy Kaling), or Anger (Lewis Black) might take a turn at the console that powers Riley’s emotional mood, but they all want what’s best for the girl, and Joy’s unbeatable when it comes to producing great memories (which accumulate in Riley’s mind as little marbles, each memory ball tinged with the color of the emotion who engineered it). The problem is that as Riley gets older — and especially after a move from Minnesota to San Francisco shakes up her family — she’s starting to find herself in stressful situations that Joy is powerless to solve. Maybe what this preteen needs is the sort of good cry that Sadness can steer her toward, the sort of wail that strengthens you afterwards because you know you’ve come out the other side okay.
As I listened to the woman next to me sniffle at today’s screening, I imagined the little Sadness figure in her head, popping forward every so often to press her emotional buttons in the manner Pixar intended. I teared up twice myself, and at unexpected times. The moment that got me the most was a small one, when it looks like a section of Riley’s mind — an amusement park called Goofball Island — will crumble to the ground, taking the girl’s silly-funny personality traits with it. I thought of my young niece, and the faces she likes to make to earn a laugh. As she gets older and more self-aware, her Goofball Island will likely be demolished, too, and while it will no doubt be replaced by something new and wonderful — just as Riley’s mind will be repaired, if Joy has her way — the movie reminded me how there are parts of us that are simply lost as we age. They won’t be rebuilt, but paved over. That’s just how life is.
God, I’m crying again just writing this! At least I’ve got company: At the film’s press conference this afternoon, Kaling said she was teary from the get-go when Pixar wooed her to do a voice in Inside Out. “I’m not asked to do that many [movies],” she said. “I have a very specific way that I look and talk and what I’m interested in, so I’ve resigned myself [to it and] know that I’m gonna be writing my own work, which is fine for me.” When director Pete Docter flew Kaling up to Northern California to pitch her on the film, then, it was both a welcome validation and an opportunity to open the waterworks. “They showed me the story,” Kaling said, “and I started weeping.”
Kaling also praised Docter and his co-director Ronaldo Del Carmen for the attention they paid to a unique female protagonist. “It gave voice to a demographic that is not often given voice to,” said Kaling. “I remember being an 11-year-old girl, and I didn’t have the vocabulary to express how I was feeling. For two men to think it was important to give voice to that — and to have girls go and watch it — was very moving to me.” It likely will be to audiences, too. Another journalist confessed to me that since she’s seen it, she’s started monitoring her own mood swings, wondering which emotion might be tampering with her console. I’ve been thinking more about those memory marbles. By the end of Inside Out, Docter and Del Carmen have suggested that Joy’s most treasured yellow marbles — the core memories of each sublime happiness Riley has experienced in her life — may actually need a dash of blue from Sadness. What’s the right mixture of happiness and melancholy? Ask the wizards at Pixar; they’ve figured out the formula.