Pixar’s “Inside Out”: Not for the Emotionally Squeamish

The feels!

My family and I saw “Inside Out” yesterday. We don’t go to the movies often, but a Pixar film is a must-see for us.

On the surface, Inside Out is a simple story about a young girl, Riley Anderson, who struggles to adjust to her new life after her family moves from Minnesota to San Francisco. It’s a story that’s been told thousands of times before. This time, with Pixar’s Pete Docter at the helm, that plain tale is transformed into a wonderfully insightful and affecting tour of human emotions.

Fair warning: Bring a box of tissues.

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What makes Pixar’s telling of this tale so beautifully unique is the simple and elegant way it reveals the inner workings of Riley’s mind. Her feelings are represented by an entourage of five characters, each of which embodies one distinct emotion: Joy, Fear, Anger, Disgust, and Sadness. These characters live at the forefront of Riley’s thoughts, taking turns at the helm to guide her safely through life’s challenges.

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The emotions are characterized as perfectly as I can imagine. It would have been so easy to get this wrong, either by taking their personalities to absurd extremes, or by placing them in constant conflict with one another. It also would have been a mistake to restrict each emotion to a 1-dimensional range based on their respective names: Joy would have always been joyful, Anger would have always been angry, and so on. Instead, the emotions are allowed grow and change, to have their own moods and feelings (emotions within emotions—take that, Inception). The result is a cast of genuinely likeable, fleshed out little people who just happen to inhabit a little girl’s head.

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Riley’s inner world is also home to numerous other constructs representing various aspects of her mind, such as memory and personality. I could say more, but I won’t; it’s much more fun to discover it all for yourself.

In regards to animation technology and technique, Pixar has once again outdone themselves. Be sure to pay special attention to Riley’s über-realistic hair. Up close, the emotions appear to be made up of faintly luminescent particles of some kind—what is that, pixie dust? And then there’s that part in the film where we get to see Riley’s process of abstraction. It’s a fun scene in its own right, but animation fans in particular are in for a real treat.

The model of human emotion portrayed in the film is admittedly simplistic. The full breadth of human motivation and rationale is neatly distilled into five color-coded, charmingly quirky little people who look out onto Riley’s world through a big-screen TV, seeking to influence their host’s reactions using an array of buttons, knobs, and levers. It’s psychology for the video game generation.

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But that’s as it should be. This is meant to be a fun, entertaining ride, not a phlegmatic foray into the darkest nether-regions of the human mind. The model’s simplicity works to several advantages. First, it’s adequate to the immediate task of telling the story. Each of the five emotions have an important role to play in Riley’s journey. Second, this model is a surprisingly effective tool. Once you see it, you can hardly resist the urge to pick it up and apply it to yourself, using it to analyze and reflect on your own formative experiences. Your mileage may vary, but much of the film’s emotional punch comes not only from seeing and sympathizing with Riley’s travails, but from remembering your own—and possibly from seeing them in a new light.

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Inside Out is a gem of a film that will stand out for years to come as an accomplishment both in animation and storytelling. I heartily recommend it to anyone who remembers the sometimes difficult road out of childhood.

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4 thoughts on “Pixar’s “Inside Out”: Not for the Emotionally Squeamish

  1. So I finally got around to watching this with my little one and I cried at the beginning haha. Riley looks just like my little one, and I cried because I almost felt loss for her growing up, and not being so naive anymore, and thinking all these complex things. It was great for us to watch, and I loved the explanation of mental health, how you lose yourself when you’re depressed. It made it easier to communicate my feelings with my daughter, and for her to communicate her feelings with me.

    Liked by 1 person

    • I freely admit, I cried at ~many~ points throughout this film. :) There were so many strong, emotional notes that echoed both my own and my kids’ childhood experiences. It was surprisingly cathartic. I’m glad to hear you enjoyed it!

      Liked by 1 person

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