Inside Out, the latest Disney-Pixar coproduction, feels like a clever educational short stretched to feature length. It has plenty to teach viewers about the workings of the human mind (writers Josh Cooley, Meg LeFauve, and Pete Docter reportedly spent years researching the subject), and it employs an array of imaginative strategies to make those lessons palatable to a wide audience. Most of the film takes place inside the brain of Riley, an 11-year-old girl; the principal characters are anthropomorphized versions of the five emotional states that govern her personality—joy, sadness, anger, fear, and disgust. The story takes place over a few weeks after Riley and her parents move from Minnesota to San Francisco, focusing on how the emotions respond to various stressors associated with this big change. That challenge turns into a full-fledged adventure when some of Riley’s “core memories” are misplaced during an anxious episode and Joy and Sadness must journey through the brain to recover them.
Riley’s mind looks a bit like Disneyland, with components of her identity—her imagination, her sense of familial belonging—represented by different islands, which in turn are connected by a literal train of thought. The tower where the five main characters work suggests a NASA mission control center, the emotions using complicated gadgets to process Riley’s memories and determine her reactions to various stimuli. Realized in meticulous detail, these mental landscapes convey an infectious fascination with the complexity of the brain; they also reflect a vaguely antihumanist sensibility that regards people as giant machines. The mix of childlike wonder and cold rationalism is characteristic of Pixar, whose movies (WALL-E, Brave) can feel so enamored of their own technological sophistication as to detract from their warmer, more winning qualities.
Inside Out is especially poignant in its handling of Sadness, characterized as a ne’er-do-well who wants to be part of the emotional team but keeps making mistakes. (One clever detail is that Sadness turns any memory she touches permanently blue.) Joy’s uneasy partnership with this unwanted emotion makes for an effective metaphor about growing up. As any child matures, she must learn to accept sadness as part of life; so Sadness becomes more important to the story as Riley comes of age, even performing a crucial role at the movie’s climax. Unfortunately that climax is so loud and busy, like that of any recent superhero movie, that it’s off-putting; once again the Pixar team are too distracted by their gadgets to think about people. v