Pixar's Inside Out plays with our emotions both effectively and recklessly


During the end credits of Inside Out, the latest animated feature from Pixar, we are treated to an assortment of peeks inside the head of a host of ancillary characters from the film — a schoolteacher, a bus driver, a burnout cashier at a pizza place, even a dog and a cat — all of whom have their own crew of emotions working to keep their charge in a precarious kind of balance. It's a crowd-pleasing touch, and it's garnered some of the biggest laughs at the film's premiere at the Cannes Film Festival, but I couldn't help but wonder what my own emotions — particularly Joy, Sadness, and Disgust — had been up to throughout the film's running time.

I will admit to having a somewhat fraught relationship with this film going in. Director Pete Docter's last film with them, Up, left me completely cold, which apparently makes me some kind of soulless robot. I particularly found its famously tear-jerking sequence, in which we see the life of an old man and his eventually deceased wife compressed into a few minutes, egregious. I won't deny tearing up during it, but it was in spite of myself. Of course it's sad to watch a sweet old man lose his sweet old wife; never mind that we're barely 10 minutes into the film and know nothing about either character. It's the emotional equivalent of a jump scare in a horror movie, or pinching someone to make them go "ouch." People just naturally react to some things; that doesn't mean they're smart or thoughtful or profound.

With Inside Out, Docter — again teamed with Up co-writer Michael Arndt — has switched his focus from the regrets of old age to the sorrows of lost youth, and once again he can't help but push those sentimentality buttons at every turn. The person whose head we spend the majority of the film in is that of Riley, an 11-year-old girl, who has lived a mostly happy, carefree life in Minnesota with her mother and father. In fact, she's frequently referred to as "our happy girl" by the latter, to the pride of Joy (Amy Poehler), who is the unofficial captain of the U.S.S. Riley. (We are to assume this is because happy people have the most initiative.)

Things take a turn, however, when Riley's father relocates the family to San Francisco for a new job, and Riley must leave behind her friends and her school and start a new life. It's about that time that Joy's control of her charge starts to slip, and Sadness (voiced by The Office's Phyllis Smith, who has many of the film's best moments) begins to go a little rogue in central command, tampering with Riley's "core memories" — her first hockey score, goofing around with her parents as a child — and turning them from happy memories to melancholy ones.

This invention of the film is pretty brilliant, as Sadness is never depicted as a troublemaker or a sower of sorrow — she just can't help herself, she never knows why she does the things she does. And the conceit — that as we age and life throws more complications at us, our remembrance of things past becomes more emotionally complicated — is simple and profound and inventively conveyed.

Through some disaster involving a bundle of core memories and some kind of pneumatic tube too abstract to economically explain here, Joy and Sadness get whisked out of headquarters and dropped far away in Long Term Memory — a kind of labyrinthine library of multicolored units of experience — and must make the long journey back while Fear, Anger, and Disgust take the wheel to disastrous effect. And here's where Inside Out starts to veer into even more wobbly and often literally abstract territory — which will please fans of Up's weirder flights of fancy and lose others.

Most of this is engaging enough, and a sequence in Riley's Dream Production center — which of course resembles a studio backlot — was pretty fun. But the central emotional thread through all of this involves a character named Bing Bong, Riley's long-forgotten imaginary friend. Without spoiling much, I will merely say that Bing Bong is the logical successor to Toy Story's forgotten, unloved toys, and is clearly put there only to put our own personal Sadnesses into a chokehold. Much of Docter's intentions in the film are interesting and introspective, but I can't get behind this sort of weepy mourning of childhood innocence he seems determined to return to time and time again. Life is full of enough sadness; now we're supposed to feel guilty about the inanimate and imaginary objects of our childhood?

Inside Out

Inside Out is clearly made from the perspective of a parent, and I can't hold that against it — Riley's emotions, especially Joy, are like secondary parents, watching her and rooting for her and playing back her memories with unconditional affection. But I wonder how this film will play for actual children, aka its primary audience, and how much Docter's wildly abstract, candy-colored visual design will delight vs. confound them. Much of it, I suppose, will look familiar — I still remember imagining jelly bean-like workers living in my stomach when I was very young, which were present in almost unsettling verisimilitude in Riley's long-term memory. And there are enough clever references to very concrete, real-world experiences (a jingle for a gum commercial that keeps being summoned for no particular reason, the maintenance workers who unsentimentally clear out unused memories like piano lessons and phone numbers) to keep it from flying off the rails. I hope its real, quite sophisticated lesson — that it's okay to feel things other than happiness sometimes, and that all our emotions help us grow up — comes through all the bouncing marbles and glitter showers and rainbow pony princesses.

Inside Out says it's OK to feel things other than happiness

Not that it matters; for as long as they've been around, Pixar movies are as much for adults as they are for children. And that lesson is one that never hurts to be reminded of at any age. But I would add an important caveat for the adults in the room: it's okay to feel Sadness sometimes, but be wary of those who foist Sadness upon you.