The first time we cry, as a newborn, might be the purest emotion we ever feel. We sob — a raw mess of tears and terror — and a big human rushes to give comfort. Mentally, the connection is made: My feelings trigger a response, be it hugs or milk or simply that I am heard. From then on, we're aware that our emotions affect our world, and soon after, that they're something to be controlled, whether by overruling fear or letting anger rip.
Pixar's Inside Out goes inside that control tower, populated with five competing emotions and walls of whirligigs. When Riley (Kaitlyn Dias) is born, her undeveloped infant brain is a void where one feeling, Joy (Amy Poehler), a Tinkerbell knockoff, oversees one button: Smile. Thirty-three seconds later, Riley weeps and a second feeling, Sadness (Phyllis Smith), pads in to grab command. Fear (Bill Hader), Anger (Lewis Black), and Disgust (Mindy Kaling) enter next, expanding Riley's emotional range with new gizmos and levers. Her first memories, each the size of a bowling ball, roll into the room on metal rails, and then they're pinballed into the shadows to light up new quadrants of Riley's mind and shape her sparkling personality. It's truly the game of life.
Pete Docter and Ronaldo Del Carmen's overbright cartoon can't disguise that this is heady stuff — a more natural fit for a black-and-white Bergman than a kiddy caper. Adults spend years in therapy learning to parse their emotions. For children, the inner world is an uncharted sea subject to storms — a small gym-class slight can build into a swell of sorrow that, like, everyone in school totally hates them.
Joy refuses to let Riley sink. For the first eleven years of Riley's life, she helms the controls with a jolly fist. Joy banishes Sadness to a corner, and dominates Fear, Anger, and Disgust with her cheerleader zeal. Fear is allowed to, say, caution Riley from falling. But Riley must be happy, or else — this is the at-all-costs, ultra-American effervescence that showers children with gold stars.
We're primed to resent Sadness, a mope in a turtleneck and glasses, who bumbles around the brain accidentally turning Riley's memories from sunny yellow to doleful blue. Yet Sadness doesn't enjoy making Riley miserable. By definition, how could she? Sadness simply can't behave according to the rules Joy has established, as lovely an explanation for depression as I've ever seen.
Inside Out's script, co-written by Meg LeFauve and Josh Cooley, gives Riley a reason to despair. Her parents (Diane Lane and Kyle MacLachlan) uproot her from Minnesota to San Francisco, where she can't find friends, play ice hockey, settle into her bedroom, or even munch pizza that isn't poisoned with broccoli. In her nightmares, broadcast from a live studio set inside her mind, slices of veggie pie screech, "We're organic!" Though Pixar is minutes from San Francisco, the animators make their hometown look justifiably harsh, even squeezing in an adults-only joke about the local "bears." Still, what lingers is moon-faced Sadness sabotaging happiness like she's under a spell — and becoming even more morose for having disappointed Joy.
During a disastrous morning at Riley's new school, Sadness triggers an emotional avalanche that forces her and Joy to leave the control tower and reboot the girl's brain. With only Fear, Disgust, and Anger in charge, Riley's personality flatlines. Once kids read The Bell Jar in high school — assuming parents worried about trigger warnings haven't lit Sylvia Plath's books on a pyre — they'll recognize Riley as the poet's pint-size reincarnation, just without the words to explain she's "very still and empty, the way the eye of a tornado must feel, moving dully along in the middle of the surrounding hullabaloo."
Hullabaloo is right. Joy and Sadness's cerebral trek is giddy with in-jokes from Psychology 101, which children won't get at all. (The frantic animation at least gives them something wild to blink at — even more than Cars 2, the style is more busy than beautiful.) A literal Train of Thought chugs past an abstract ideas chamber where the girls are flattened into Picassos, then through the imagination's French fry forest and above an underground subconscious haunted by a giant clown. Warns Sadness, "It's where they take all the troublemakers." On foot, with Joy dragging Sadness after she becomes too leaden to walk, they lurch past a cleanup crew who erase Riley's fading memories — phone numbers, piano lessons, presidential facts — and meet the imaginary best friend she dreamed up as a toddler, a hybrid dolphin-elephant with a cotton-candy torso, who refuses to admit that he could be entirely forgotten, even when his left arm begins to fade.
Psychiatrists would send Captain Zoloft in to save the day. Most kid-flicks would anoint Joy as the hero, as they boil down to the same rote maxims: "Be yourself! Be positive! You can do anything if you just believe!" (An iffy message for future serial killers and ruthless CEOs.)
Yet, for all the distractions and gags, Inside Out argues a more complex idea: that sometimes, Sadness deserves to steer, and that as we age, our happy memories deepen when tinted a wistful blue. That truth melts parents into blubbering wrecks but won't click with children until their 15th rewatch. No rush. They'll be busy decoding Inside Out's simpler messages: The emotions in your head may conflict. But what matters isn't only your inner world — it's your outer response. Because everyone else has feelings, too.
Directed by Pete Docter and Ronaldo Del Carmen. Written by Pete Docter, Meg LeFauve, and Josh Cooley. Staring Amy Poehler, Bill Hader, Mindy Kaling, Lewis Black, Phyllis Smith, Kaitlyn Dias, and Diane Lane.