The 11-year-old Riley (Kaitlyn Dias) has it pretty great in Minnesota, a happy life with doting parents, loyal friends, and a winning hockey team. But big changes come when her dad (Kyle MacLachlan) takes a new job and relocates the family. They decide to tackle the transfer as an adventure, but arriving in San Francisco, they are greeted with more than few disappointments, including a slightly creepy house, a lost moving van, a distracted father, and a broccoli pizza (horrors!). Still, putting on a happy face is second nature to Riley (and her parents too), and so she rebounds from each setback without many complaints.
As its title suggests, though, Inside Out is less about what Riley says and does and more about what’s going on in her head, specifically, the emotions that drive her. Ever-optimistic Joy (Amy Poehler) is our narrator and the one who influences Riley the most. Joy also keeps Riley’s other emotions in check, from Disgust (Mindy Kaling) and Fear (Bill Hader) to Anger (Lewis Black) and the literally blue Sadness (Phyllis Smith). Manning the controls of Riley’s mind up in Headquarters, the team sees the world through her eyes and helps her navigate life, with Joy cueing the right emotion for any given situation. These emotions are also in charge of memories, which appear as glass globes, color-coordinated to correspond with dominant emotions of each memory. Joy is a golden yellow color and she has seen to it that most of Riley’s memories are golden, too.
But when Sadness begin to behave strangely, touching the golden memories and turning them blue (rewriting happy stories as sad ones), Joy finds herself struggling to keep Riley characteristically happy. When an accident causes some of Riley’s Core Memories to be lost, Joy and Sadness are thrust out of Headquarters, left to wander through Riley’s mind. Like Riley, they are in new and strange territories, Imagination Land, Dream Productions, and the Memory Dump, a sorrowful wasteland where once favorite memories become Forgotten. Perhaps most alarming, they come across the Subconscious, where, as Joy explains, “They keep the troublemakers.”
Inside Out returns Pixar to the sort of brilliance the company churned out regularly before it was purchased by Disney. At last, the two conjoined entities are working together — perhaps like Joy and Sadness — in order to produce a charming mix of humor and heartbreak. Inside Out shows that a tween experience can be just as complicated as the lead elderly gentleman in Pixar’s Up. Yes, Bill Hader personifies the panic she feels at a social calamity in a most amusing way, but makes clear too her gut-wrenching terror at being judged and rejected by her peers. And, as much as Joy might remind you of Poehler’s character Leslie Knope from Parks and Recreation — looking on the bright side, giving motivational speeches, and insisting her way is the only way — she’s also an occasional source of pain and difficulty for Riley.
As Inside Out complicates the effects of emotions, it’s walking that line between childhood and adolescence. Riley is learning to “put away childish things”, sometimes knowingly and sometimes, as Joy and Sadness witness, without being quite aware. She manufactures imaginary dream guys, even while her imaginary friend Bing Bong (Richard Kind) from her toddler days still hangs out in the back of her mind. She’s brave enough to face the first day in a new school alone, but is still afraid of clowns. Riley pushes and pulls at her parents, now unsure of what she once believed without question.
All this is not to say there are not some worrying aspects to Inside Out, most notably the idea that Riley is entirely at the mercy of her emotions. Joy and her cohorts determine Riley’s understanding, her every thought, memory, response, and action with no mention of reason, logic or any other resource. It’s a reductive and stereotypical way to think about a prepubescent girl. That we are given peeks into the minds of Riley’s mom (Diane Lane) and dad reveal that they too, regardless of age and gender, are essentially driven by emotions. But these glimpses also pigeonhole women and men’s roles. Mom’s emotions are insightful and also disapproving of Dad and his man-cave mind, which is full of clueless and distracted feelings.
At least Mom and Dad do evolve, as they find ways to help their daughter’s transition and acknowledge the problems they face. Joy evolves, too; as she struggles to keep Sadness in check while they make their way back to Headquarters, Joy discovers that Sadness is a valuable partner. The two are intertwined and dependent on each other, as opposing ideas shape each other. Joy learns that her insistence on dominating Riley’s life, though perhaps well intentioned, has distorted the child’s experience with her golden-colored glasses. Her lesson might be this, that there can be too much of a good thing.