It’s funny how the director of, what was, my “least favorite” Pixar film for a long time (before “Cars” and “Cars 2”) has suddenly become my favorite director among the stable of artistic geniuses at the animation studio thanks to his last film, “Up,” and now, his newest film. As much as “Up” continues to have personal emotional resonance for me, “Inside Out” is a film that somehow surpasses it on an emotional front. How Doctor and his collaborators (co-director Ronaldo Del Carmen and co-writers Meg LeFauve & Josh Cooley) accomplished that is the sort of creative miracle we’ve grown accustomed to from Pixar over the years.
The past eight years have found me on a journey of profound emotional discovery. My entire adult life until age 30 was filled with anxiety, depression and sadness for a multitude of reasons. Whether it was the question of ever making a romantic or tension at home or career stress, there was a lot that put me in a perpetual cycle of mental and emotional disarray. It took being hospitalized, and seeing my negativity have an effect on my interpersonal relationships, to snap me out of it, and get me on an emotionally healthy track. The driving force, for me, has been trying to find an emotional balance, and being able to control the emotions I felt, to acknowledge them, and to process them in a healthy way. I wasn’t always this way, though; as I would put together the pieces, this emotional turmoil seemed to really be triggered when my parents and I moved to Georgia in 1988. All of the sudden, I had to make new friends, live in a new place and figure out what a normal life would be. It was difficult work.
I recount all of this because emotional balance, and the changes that a child goes through when they find themselves trying to discover a “new normal,” are at the heart of “Inside Out.” Riley is a 12-year-old girl who loves hockey, had a great friend in Meg, and many wonderful memories with her parents in Minnesota. Now, she is being uprooted due to her father’s work, and is moved out to San Francisco. To make matters worse, the moving truck is late, and her father is busy with work. This makes Riley (voiced beautifully by Kaitlyn Dias) feel even more isolated and anxious than she was before. This isn’t a typical coming-of-age story, though, because this moment of upheaval is largely seen from the perspective of Riley’s emotions. Yes, I said emotions. The leader is Joy (Amy Poehler), who manages Riley’s happiness. Then there’s Sadness (Phyllis Smith), who can’t seem to get out of a funk; Fear (Bill Hader), who always seems to have a list of things to worry about; Disgust (Mindy Kaling), who keeps toxins away from Riley; and Anger (Lewis Black), who brings out a bit of a dark streak in Riley, at times. They operate out of a control booth in Riley’s brain, helping her deal with day-to-day situations and guiding her emotionally through life by picking the right memories to deal with each situation, or doing something as simple as having her smile. This move changes things, though, and when Riley’s “core memories” get lost in the complex labyrinth of her mind, along with Joy and Sadness, Riley is sent into a permanent depression that Fear, Disgust and Anger are ill-equipped to guide her out of. It’s not long before the foundations of her life start to crumble, and the need for Joy and Sadness to work together to get back to the front lines of Riley’s emotional life becomes vital before something truly tragic happens.
When Pixar first announced “Inside Out,” the central logline of a movie set inside the head of the young girl was immediately fascinating, especially since a degree of sequel fever had seemed to take over the animation house that excelled when it did something original. Thankfully, Doctor (who also directed “Monsters Inc.”) proved himself to be the most attentive director the studio had when it came to handling delicate emotional territory with “Up” and the best moments of “Monsters Inc.,” so “Inside Out” was in very good hands. Emotions are vital to the film’s success, and not just because the embodiments of them are the main characters of this imaginative dramatic comedy. Doctor’s smartest move as a storyteller is to not tip off his overall theme about the importance of emotional balance, and understanding where each one plays a part, by slamming us over the head with it. He builds his epiphanies and emotional swells gradually and powerfully, making the payoff all the more satisfying. Look at the scene, after Joy and Sadness have gotten stuck in Riley’s memory banks, where Riley and her parents are around the dinner table after Riley’s first day of school. The focus is on how the remaining emotions are unable to function properly in gauging what Riley’s reactions to her parents’s questions are, but we also get glimpses at the emotions controlling her parents during this scene. Yes, the by-play between the two groups is very funny in the way they hit the archetypal parenting roles, but look at who appears “in charge” of mom and dad, and it becomes clear that her parents have figured out the balance that Riley’s emotions are having to find on the fly. It feels like I’m giving away too much about the film, but the truth is, dealing with this part of the movie is important to show why this film had such an effect on me. The point Doctor is making is that emotional balance is something that takes years to figure out, and to be thrown into understanding the need for it can lead to emotional chaos, and it sometimes takes a big event in our lives for us to learn that. This is a film that throws out big, complication psychological concepts in a way that engages adults and children alike without making them complicated to follow, and can, hopefully, open up a dialogue between them about what it’s like to grow up, and the importance of being able to express ourselves, and that it’s okay if those expressions aren’t always positive ones.
It took me a long time to finally watch “Inside Out,” not because I wasn’t interested in it (I would have been there opening day, if possible), but because my life in the over two months it’s been out has been one of big changes, and big emotional moments. Finding that balance that “Inside Out” centers on, and that I have strived for the past eight years, has been difficult, even though the central change in my life is a very positive one indeed. It’s funny how, in the past six years, the movies I’ve found that have helped me most in calming my mind, and finding some emotional peace, have been animated films. Doctor performed similar magic with “Up,” which helped me find closure in my grandfather’s passing from 2000 by giving me an adventure between characters whose bond mirrored the one I had with my grandfather. Last year, “How to Train Your Dragon 2” was a cathartic adventure that dealt with the struggles of Hiccup to forge his own path while also honoring the legacy of his father, and helped me emotionally work through my own feelings after my father passed away in 2013. And now, “Inside Out” is another movie that seems to be the right one, at the right time, to help me find my way through the chaos life throws in our direction. We obviously always hope for happiness, but sometimes, the other emotions have a part to play, as well. We just have to figure out where that place is, and how best to express them.