Note: Full spoilers for the film follow.
The film’s central conceit is that our brains (in the film’s case, the mind of 11-year-old Riley) is comprised of five basic emotions that essentially serve as the headquarters of the workings of the mind: Joy (Amy Poehler), Sadness (Phyllis Smith), Anger (Lewis Black, in a role he was born to play), Fear (Bill Hader), and Disgust (Mindy Kaling). When the film begins, Joy is by far the dominant emotion, doing everything in her power to ensure that the only memories that go into Riley’s core consciousness are those that are unequivocally happy. To do so, however, she ruthlessly sidelines Sadness. When Sadness accidentally turns one of Riley’s core memories sad, she sets in motion a chain of events that leads to both Joy and Sadness being locked out of Headquarters. As they attempt to make their way back, they have to learn to work together; in the end, Joy realizes the necessity of Sadness, and Riley attains a new sense of emotional balance.
It should come as no surprise that Poehler and company manage to imbue their characters with a remarkable amount of depth, showing the ways in which the various parts of our emotions work together (and sometimes against one another) in the process of both our immediate experiences of the world as well as how we come to be who we are as individuals. As the various islands of Riley’s personality take shape, we are left to wonder how our own combination(s) of Anger, Sadness, Fear, Disgust, and Joy combine in the process of making our own individual psyches. It is both fun and more than a little disturbing to think of ourselves as not completely unified, or even coherent, selves, but rather a composite of competing impulses that exist in a tenuous (one might even go so far as to say unstable) balance.
While Poehler et al deserve the lion’s share of the credit for their flawless voice work, the supporting characters also provide moments of uproarious fun including, most notably, the indomitable Paula Poundstone as Forgetter Paula, one of those responsible for ensuring that more inconsequential memories are disposed of and ultimately forgotten.
The film’s brilliance derives in large part from the ways in which it makes legible the truly bizarre workings of the human mind. Whether or not the film’s portrayal of human psychology is strictly accurate is, in my view, beside the point. What I find more interesting is the film’s insistence that we can, indeed, apprehend how the mind works, that the vagaries of human consciousness and unconsciousness are indeed understandable, that the people we are and the people we may become can be brought into the fold of some sort of order and understanding. Yet even here the film suggests that certain things are beyond our control, and some things that we would like to retrieve from the Memory Dump, for example, ultimately elude our abilities to control them. It remains ambiguous whether that is for the best, or whether it is merely an unfortunate fact of life with which we must perpetually contend.
As with the best Pixar films, Inside Out manages to inject a measure of deep pathos and genuine emotion into the otherwise quite joyful film. When Bing Bong, Riley’s almost-forgotten imaginary friend, falls into the Memory Dump with Joy in tow, we see all of the many of Riley’s memories that have not earned their place in her long-term storage, each one fading slowly away. When Bing Bong himself fades away while imploring Joy to take Riley to the moon, it is almost impossible (unless you a replicant) not to shed a few–or even several–tears, not just for the character in the film, but also for that part of us that we must leave behind as we make our journey into adulthood. Who among us, after all, has not felt the pang of leaving behind the world of the past, even if some parts of it were not as joyful as we would have liked? There is almost always something heartbreakingly satisfying about letting go of the past, even as we recognize that there is also something irreparably lost when we do so.
It is thus perhaps appropriate that the film ends up being the perfect mixture of charming and tragic. As such, it acts as something of an antidote, or at least an answer, to the prominent cultural discourses that suggest that we must be relentlessly cheerful and optimistic, even though we live in a world that is often violently imperfect and traumatizing. While the film couches all of this in the seemingly banal experiences of a child, the message is one that adults in the audience should certainly take to heart.
Starting with this review, I’m going to start awarding films a score out of 10. Just…because I like quantification sometimes.