A little over five years ago, Pixar writer-director Pete Docter (Up) tried to imagine how the world looked through the eyes of his sad 11-year-old daughter, and the movie he was moved to conceive, Inside Out, will likely help sad girls and boys and the grown-ups they become for as long as there are movies. Set largely inside the mind of an 11-year-old girl named Riley, this teeming, tear-duct-draining, exhaustingly inventive, surreal animated comedy is going to be a new pop-culture touchstone. In all kinds of ways it’s a mind-opener.
Notice I said mind, not brain, since the neuroscience isn’t precise. We’re in the realm of feelings. Docter — instinctively in sync with corporate as well as pop culture — has conceived of our head space as a vast, sprawling theme park, its high-tech, vaguely hypothalamic-shaped headquarters located in a central control tower overseen by five emotions working in harmony and, not infrequently, disharmony. Joy, Fear, Disgust, Anger, and the especially wayward Sadness have human form, although their shapes, colors, genders, and protean capacities vary. Joy (voiced by Amy Poehler), the movie’s heroine, is a radiant yellow gamine, sunshine personified; she spritzes particles of energy when she moves. Sadness (Phyllis Smith) is a blue, bespectacled lump. Disgust (Mindy Kaling) is pickle-puss green. The two more volatile emotions — frazzled, stringy, purple Fear (Bill Hader) and squat, red Anger (Lewis Black) — are plainly male, a bias I’ll leave to men’s-rights groups to protest.
Here’s the really important part: In Docter’s mind-design, emotions literally color memories, which get stored in small bowling balls that roll in after each new experience, glowing yellow, red, green, purple, or blue. Memory balls loom large in Inside Out. Their colors, it turns out, may be altered, sometimes with devastating consequences. Thus, when Riley and her family move from bucolic Minnesota to San Francisco, Sadness fingers a golden “core memory” ball — Riley’s recollection of ice hockey with friends — and chills it blue. The problem is that as memories go, so goes the psyche, until this once-ebullient little girl is suddenly a ball of mute despondency. From HQ, Joy watches in horror as nearby “islands of identity” — Friendship Island, Family Island, Goofball Island, Hockey Island — sink into the mist. While Joy labors to keep Sadness (and Fear and Anger) from touching more memory balls, Riley’s entire personality seems on the verge of disintegrating.
Yes, that sounds damn serious for an animated “family” comedy. And it is serious. Most of Pixar’s movies are rooted in the pain of loss — of a whole planet (Wall-E), of a family (Finding Nemo, Up), or just of childhood, when the world seemed a simpler and more joyful place. But Inside Out stops short of catastrophe — or clinical depression. As gloomy as Riley’s situation is, it’s not extraordinarily gloomy. It’s not outside the bounds of normal human experience. You often hear that the arc of a person’s life is determined not by the misfortunes that come his or her way but by how he or she responds to them. And that’s what Docter (who wrote the script with Meg LeFauve and Josh Cooley) is trying to chart in the weirdest, zaniest, most slapsticky way, without therapyspeak but for deeply therapeutic ends: how haywire, contradictory emotions can reassemble themselves into something halfway adaptive.
Much of Inside Out is a carnivalesque odyssey: Having been sucked up a chute and propelled to the far end of Riley’s mindscape, the fundamentally at-odds Joy and Sadness must find their way back to headquarters before everything really goes to hell. The road is anything but straight. The obstacles are riotous. Docter and his Pixar team have packed the film with gags — visual, verbal, broad, glancing — and I can’t think of one that doesn’t have psychological, philosophical, cultural, or just fascinating architectural underpinnings. The Long Term Memory facility was apparently inspired by a Jelly Belly candy factory and an egg-processing plant, and what its unromantic custodians choose to purge and what to keep shall not be revealed here. Dreams are scripted and shot in a mini Hollywood studio (not called DreamWorks, alas) near the giddy, freewheeling Imagination Land and the Subconscious, where dreams go to become nightmares. The most surprising encounter is with a friendly, dopey clown called Bing Bong (Richard Kind), who was once Riley’s imaginary friend. Happy as he is, Bing Bong carries a trace of the melancholy of Toy Story’s toys. He was once a major part of Riley’s inner world and loves her still. But he has no place in the mind of an evolving 11-year-old.
Inside Out was five years in the making, and it’s a sign of how gingerly and exactingly Docter felt his way through the material that he reportedly decided, during production, to throw out much of his second half. The two lost, adversarial Emotions struggling for control of Riley’s psyche weren’t supposed to be Joy and Sadness but Joy and Fear. I can see why that made sense at first — and why it went nowhere. Fear is almost always the antagonist in Hollywood coming-of-age movies, particularly male-centered ones. Boys get girls by conquering their cowardice and standing up to bullies. Underlings vanquish shame and learn to carpe the diem. No less brilliant a sad sack than Albert Brooks identified fear rather than sadness as the principal barrier to self-realization — to moving to the next level of spiritual awareness — in Defending Your Life. But Docter must have seen through that macho construct and wanted something different for his little girl, not just because it made more psychological sense but because Joy and Sadness, though opposed, are easier to reconcile. Joy is stronger and is more stable with an awareness of Sadness. Their colors can blend.
It would be difficult to overpraise the vocal stylings of Amy Poehler, who conveys not just supernatural exuberance but the semi-tonal quavers of doubt that keep that said exuberance from being cloying or cartoonish. Michael Giacchino’s score is marvelous even by his own exalted standards. Each region of Riley’s mind has its own melodic character but exists in relation to the larger organism — a factory in which every cog and pulley is soulfully in tune. Like, come to think of it, Pixar.
*This article appears in the June 15, 2015 issue of New York Magazine.