Inside Out follows Riley, an eleven year old who goes through an Identity crisis when her family leaves everything she loves behind and moves to a new city.
The only way Riley can come to any resolution is if the voices in her head learn to work together.
On the surface, the moral of teamwork is important to the film, but to say that’s the only moral is to sell the film short. Pixar delves into a concept so complex, English scarcely has a word for it. But before I get to ahead of myself, a bit of backstory…
The first act of the film follows Riley’s developmental years. Joy is more than proud that the majority of Riley’s memories are thanks to her. The memories are represented in the film by glowing orbs. Yellow for Joy; Blue for Sadness; Red for Anger; Purple for Fear and Green for Disgust. At times Riley is a puppet to her emotions—if she encounters broccoli, Disgust pulls the strings. But for the most part the emotions are merely reactionary to her life. For instance, Anger is always seen reading the paper, with a headline of something that was said only moments earlier. He doesn’t drive the body; he reacts to the stimuli outside of it.
Whiles we’re on the topic of personified Anger and Fear, something worth noting is that no antagonist is introduced in the film. Pixar has moved on from human villains like Lotso in Toy Story 3, to no villains at all. All this is refreshing for a children’s movie because the crisis doesn’t result from the protagonist facing off against a dragon, it arises when her family moves from Michigan to San Francisco.
Some things aren’t as refreshing. There are characters that we’ve seen before—the dummy father who’s mostly absent and the condescending, yet ever-patient mother—but the film doesn’t have time to focus on those external struggles, it’s focused on Riley’s internal one.
The film is essentially an animated modernist drama about an identity crisis. But it’s stripped of the troupes one might normally find. There’s no M83 soundtrack. There’s no brooding boy, seated on a park bench, meditating on life as a tear rolls down his face and meets with his half-hearted smile. Instead we’re entreated to a colorful journey through an 11 year olds consciousness.
After the aforementioned move to San Fransisco, everything internally starts to go haywire. Joy decides to try and separate Sadness from the rest, operating under the notion that happiness is superior to everything else. But when sadness fails to comply, Riley’s core memories get spilt onto the floor and in the efforts to clean it up both Joy and Sadnesses get sucked into long-term memory. Though it’s never stated, I imagine this happens because Riley enters a state of reflection with nothing but Fear, Disgust and Anger to run the show. A heavy concept if you stop to think about it. But Inside Out’s colours, creativity and fast paced dialogue keep it buoyant, like a sad song set to poppy beat.
In the second act, Joy and Sadness rush through the long-term memory in their attempts to get back to the controls. Along their way they meet the long lost imaginary friend Bing Bong, who helps them navigate through Riley’s collapsing conscious. Eventually, they meet a crossroads where Joy decides to ignore the importance of Sadness and leave her behind. The move is ill-fated; Both Joy and Bing Bong end up in a void where memories go to die. In order for Joy to escape oblivion, Bing Bong has to stay behind. In essence, Childlike innocence has to sacrifice itself in order for Joy to move forward. The reason being is that Riley has to move past the childhood belief that everything is either happy or sad—the manic viewpoint that’s personified in Bing Bong.
When Joy gets back to the surface she realizes that Riley’s emotions shouldn’t have acted in tandem, producing memories tinted with one emotion or the other. They should be working the controls together. And so when Joy and Sadness finally get back to the control desk, they press the button together and produce a memory that’s tinted yellow and blue.
The resolution of the film centers around this moment. This emotion! And as I said, we don’t have a word for it in English. The closest I can think of is ‘the Sublime,’ or what Yeat’s calls ‘Tragic-joy.’ Through embracing the idea of Joy and sadness existing together as one, Riley is able to reorder her conscious identity and mature forward.
Now, step back and think about that concept. This is a children’s movie made by a company whose resume consists almost entirely of happy endings. Sure Riley and family are “happy” at the end; they find resolve. But the epiphany of the film is that life isn’t bliss or suffering, it’s both. With a moral like that, it feels like Pixar is asking everyone who was raised on the ideal of the happily-ever-after, to grow up.