The year’s best movie by far doesn’t feature dinosaurs or superheroes or fast cars or even Minions. It centers on the emotions inside the mind of an eleven-year-old girl and the rocky phase she goes through as she and her family move from the Midwest to San Francisco. Inside Out is the fifteenth animated feature film from Pixar Animation Studios, as well as perhaps its most ambitious. And yet, it retains the same emotional heart strings that made director Pete Docter’s previous film, Up, a daring winner.
This year also marks twenty years since the release of the studio’s original milestone, Toy Story, which practically changed the face of animation just as Walt Disney’s perennial Snow White had nearly eight decades earlier. That being said, you could say the emotions in Inside Out stand as Pixar’s own version of the Seven Dwarfs. Only here, there are five—Joy (voiced by Amy Poehler), Sadness (Phyliss Smith), Anger (Lewis Black), Disgust (Mindy Kaling), and Fear (Bill Hader)—all assuming personified adult roles in the “headquarters” of Riley’s mind as she experiences life with laughter, caution, and sometimes angst. Surrounding this tower are distinct “islands of personality” that make up Riley’s character traits, from goofiness to hockey-loving to family, friendship and honesty. Completing this internal structure, if you will, are theme park-like attractions full of stuffed animals and giant French fries, movie studios that produce and create dreams at night, and a maze of shelves full of marbles with video memories of Riley’s experiences growing up. (Who ever knew the mind could be this imaginative and creative?)
Pixar has had a long reputation for not only dazzling audiences with mere CGI ingenuity, but also in getting emotionally invested in the stories they tell and in the characters that occupy them. In fact, half of their films focus on memories of childhood, what it means to be a parental figure, and growing up. Some of the best stories in film are those that not only allow us to escape from reality for a few moments, but also challenge and inspire us with ways in which we can deal with reality. Pixar has done so with stories involving the relationships between toys and their child owners, a father clownfish searching for his son under the sea, monsters in children’s closets, a family of superheroes, and an old man flying his house via balloons to another part of the world.
Inside Out centers specifically on the challenges of growing up and experiencing life in new ways, as well as learning to let go of certain insecurities and child-like ambitions in the process, including the fact that happiness isn’t everything. (I should note that this movie deals with some pretty sad subject matter at times and may be too much for sensitive viewers, particularly younger children.) On a deeper level, it’s a journey for Joy, Sadness and of course Riley, when the former two get accidentally sucked out of the headquarters station into long-term memory, leaving Anger, Disgust and Fear, in charge but to no avail. As they try to get back, they (and audiences) discover how each of our emotions—even the ones we believe don’t mean anything—play a significant role in how we grow, develop, and work or interact with other people. Ergo, Pixar’s retaining (and rewarding) theme of emotional investment and maturity.