Let’s talk about things that make Inside Out so special which I didn’t want to give away in my non-spoiler review. For a quick recap the story of Inside Out takes place in the mind (not the brain) of a little girl named Riley. And on an aside the idiots who are claiming ‘they stole Herman’s Head’ are wrong. Herman’s Head is about personality traits not emotions. It isn’t the same! Herman’s Head has creatures like genius and animal that represent different sides of Herman’s personality just like Riley has the islands of personality. Plus the show is super dated and not very funny. Get over it!
Even if the idea of people inside a person’s head has been done Inside Out has an entirely different take on the matter. It deals with memory and actually not that much time is spent directing Riley around or manipulating her. Aside from one moment of waking her up it is all about memories and how they ‘make Riley, Riley’ as Joy tells us in the intro.
Up was so brilliant because it was about dealing with loss and how we can ‘move on’ from memories. How we in a sense can function with those memories. The main conflict in Inside Out starts because Riley is moving away from her childhood home. This change has done two important things. First Sadness is now compelled to turn Riley’s core memories from joyful to sad, which makes sense if you think about a little girl who is losing everything she knew and loved. Suddenly a happy time with a friend feels sad because that friend is gone. (Again just like with Up the dreams Carl had with Ellie are now paralyzing him and making him feel guilty for the memories he couldn’t give her). Joy resists Sadness changing the memories creating the main conflict of the film.
Second, when Riley speaks before her class a new core memory is created and Joy tries to take it away and Sadness says “it’s a core memory. You can’t take it away”. That’s what gets Joy and Sadness sucked into long-term memory and our entire story moving. When you think about it, Pete Doctor and his team have really presented a rather bold concept. They are saying that Riley at 11 is already having to do what Carl did at however old he is. She is having to overcome the sadness of her memories and find a way to be happy just like Carl. Perhaps this is a key to the human experience? It certainly is for me and everyone I know.
So Joy and Sadness end up in long-term memory. What does this do to poor Riley? It leaves her in a state of emotional emptiness. She can feel neither joy nor sadness and that was an emotion I can certainly relate too. There have been times in my life when there seemed to be a black cloud over everything and I felt incapable of feeling anything and nothing I did made it any better. No wonder she gets desperate and has the bright idea to go back to where she was happy. Again it is much like Carl in Up trying to go to the place of their dreams where they had so much joy. In Riley’s case her mother even tells her that she needs to be happy to help her father. What a bold idea for Pete Doctor and team to share with kids- that being happy can actually be the wrong advice. (We’ll get to more of that in a little bit).
The next section of the movie you have Joy and Sadness trying to find their way back to headquarters but as Riley starts to feel more empty the more challenges are put in their way. The islands of personality are falling apart (which again makes sense when you think about depression and the dullness it gives to life) and it forces them into a couple parts of Riley’s brain- her imagination, dreams, subconscious and abstract thought. These are all brilliantly done.
First we find Imaginationland. This is obviously Riley’s imagination or creative center. It’s where she plays and fantasizes. What is so brilliant about this world is it is so clearly 11. Everything about it is changing from a little girl to a teenager. Nearly every building is either being built or taken down, which makes complete sense for Riley especially with a move going on. For example, her gingerbread house she used to dream about (and is one of the possible options for the new house in San Francisco) is being taken apart when the duo arrive. We also see the Princess Castle evaporate into thin air.
This sense of change in Imanginationland not only creates an unpredictable world (as opposed to say Sugar Rush in Wreck-it Ralph which was pink and sugary and kind of predictable) but it also tells us so much about Riley. It tells us that she is thinking about boys, and throwing off some of her more childish ideas. At the end, she has whole new personality islands like Boy Band Island and Joy seems to finally be at a spot where she can allow for whatever Riley wants to happen. Riley’s parents also seem to come to terms with their little monkey imagining a quite grown up thing of running away. She is a new person an equal to them in many ways emotionally.
Riley’s changing imagination and personality is personified with the character Bing Bong her former imaginary friend. He has been hanging out in long-term memory for some time but he still dreams of going to the moon in his rocket with Riley again someday.
He knows more than Joy about Riley’s changes and she in fact gives him a naive hope that Riley will revert back and play with him again. It’s another example of the brilliant layers within the movie. We see Joy change as Riley is changing and it impacts Bing Bong and Sadness and the whole story. He knows the inner-workings of Riley’s mind because he has no doubt been hanging around for some time (she’s 11 figure 5 or 6 years?). He knows the urgency so he suggests they take a shortcut to find the train of thought station. Sadness warns about this I think knowing there are no shortcuts when it comes to emotional growth and change. We can want some easy solution to the emptiness Riley is feeling, which is what Joy wants desperately, but that’s not the way things work.
If we think about who is left to rule Riley’s mind when she is feeling all of this emptiness it is mostly Anger and Fear with a little help from Disgust. Isn’t that true? When we are dealing with depression or these types of feelings do we feel joyful? No we feel angry and at least for me especially anxious. You will do almost anything to get rid of the emptiness and we can see Riley as she gives up hockey, gets frustrated with her parents and gets sent to her room. Her father mistakenly tries to cheer her up with the old Riley making monkey noises. That just reinforces what she has lost and the unknown lying in front of her. And yet her Mother tells her she has to be happy? That feels as impossible as if Joy was lost in a maze in her mind…oh wait she is!
So at this point Joy, Sadness and Bing Bong take the shortcut and just as Sadness predicted it ends up being a problem. They are lost in Riley’s abstract thinking. It is a brilliant sequence where they change from cubism (look like Picaso), to two dimensional objects, to lines and barely make it out alive. Again so is with shortcuts to real emotional growth. They just leave us muddled in abstract concepts like wellness and wholeness and not any closer to fixing the problem.
Once they make it out of abstract thought they arrive at the Train of Thought. All seems to be solved and Joy an Sadness are back on their way to headquarters with Bing Bong but Joy has still not accepted the need for Sadness in Riley’s life. She has started too when she hears Sadness console Bing Bong over the loss of the rocketship. (Sadness merely listens to him and he feels better. That is very profound concept, sadness listens…Still pondering that one). But if they made it back to headquarters Joy would still be resistant to Sadness and the sad core memory and Riley would probably still want to run away (remember it is Sadness that is able to remove the lightbulb to run away).
So the Train of Thought stops because Riley goes to sleep. This means they have to enter the next land which is Rileys Dream Studios. This is probably the funniest section of the movie as there is a production studio that looks alarmingly like the Warner Brothers lot (water tower and all) which I thought was funny. I like that Riley is still a normal girl having fairly normal dreams but just like our dreams the longer they go the nuttier they get. There are some definite inside jokes in this segment about the illusion of movie making. I especially like the reality distortion filter. Even in the best of movies that is the case. It’s a story not reality.
Joy wants to do something nice to wake Riley up so they can get back on the train. She gives Bing Bong the core memories and tries acting like a dog. Sadness says “this isn’t working…” Joy will not listen and they end up getting kicked out of the studio with Bing Bong taken to the next land Riley’s subconscious. These characters of Joy and Sadness have a real dynamic character arc. You see them grow and change which is remarkable when you think they are emotions. Perhaps our emotions are also dynamic fluid things that change? Particularly joy at 11 is different than joy at 70.
Joy and Sadness have to follow Bing Bong into the subconscious because he has the core memories. The subconscious is full of things that scare Riley. Things like the basement stairs or her grandma’s vacuum cleaner (I’m assuming that one was a long forgotten fear). And the largest fear is a giant clown that has trapped Bing Bong in a balloon cage. This was interesting to me that Riley’s fears have trapped her imaginary friend from childhood. I know for me when I was going through my empty time I was afraid to make a change and be happy. My fears were holding me back. All of Riley’s Imaginationland is changing and how ironic that her imaginary friend is in a cage in her subconscious? This is the only part of the movie that might scare small children. One little girl had to be taken out of the theater because the clown is pretty scary.
But they are successful in waking up Riley so we think that the train of thought will start up again and the movie will be done but Joy has still not learned to accept Sadness like RILEY NEEDS her too. By this point the plan to run away is in full swing and it really makes sense if you look at it from Riley’s perspective. As anger says ‘Minnesota was the last place she was happy so we need to get back there’. But the problem is she was a girl in Minnesota and certainly if she were to continue on the bus ride she would be even less of a little girl by the end of it. In fact, her entire personality (all the islands) would have been destroyed. This is what prevents Joy and Sadness from making it back to headquarters when Family Island starts to disintegrate. Joy and Bing Bong end up in the memory dump. (I tried to find a picture but I couldn’t).
Joy has finally reached the point of complete humility where she has stopped trying to be happy and she weeps, cries her eyes out. She does what Riley should have been doing all along- expressing all this change and fear of the future. It is then that she see’s the sad core memory from the beginning of Riley crying in class. The one she had resisted at the beginning that had started all this mess. She realizes Sadness was right and that Riley needs both of them in order to get through life (how brilliant is that!). She learns that the happy core memories are often made memorable by the heartache that proceeded it. In particular a hockey game that Joy had seen as being such a fun core memory. Now she see’s the other side and how Riley had missed the winning shot and was sad. Her friends and parents came to cheer her up which made the memory special worthy of a core memory. It is a very moving moment for the audience as we think about our core memories which are also equally bittersweet.
It reminds me of the play Our Town. In the play Emily tries to pick the most innocuous of events to revisit, her 12 year old birthday party, (Riley is 11). Surely that will be a perfectly happy care free time. She ends up leaving in tears and asks the Stage Manager if anyone on earth “realizes life while they live it”. Perhaps we are too concerned with making the birthday party and not enough the people being celebrated? We can certainly see this with Riley’s parents who are trying but dealing with a move, stresses at work and not wanting to acknowledge their daughters feelings. She just needs to be ‘happy’. Kind of like the birthday party in Our Town.
Realizing what she needs to do Joy is desperate for a way to get back to Riley and make everything right. It’s such a humbling moment for a character. I thought in a movie where a character is Joy it would be so one note and predictable. Never in a million years did I think she would come to herself and realize she was wrong. I never expected a repentant Joy! That’s how deep and emotionally rich this movie is. But they are stuck in the dump and Bing Bong is starting to evaporate.
That’s when they get the idea to use Bing Bong’s rocket to get back up to Sadness. Unfortunately after 3 tries it becomes clear to Bing Bong that it cannot make it back with his weight in the ship. He decides to sacrifice himself in order for Riley to get Joy back again. It is really a lovely moment of cinema. Joy doesn’t realize it until she is back safely up and there is just time to say goodbye to Bing Bong. (Again going back to that theme of saying goodbye to Riley’s childhood). I thought they might pull some kind of stop and not make Bing Bong die. That there would be some way to make everything work out but no they stick with it and it is beautiful, and touching and perfect. It made me think about all the people in my life who sacrificed to help me become the woman I am and gave up much so that I would feel joy (teachers, parents, aunts, uncles, the list goes on).
Eventually Joy and Sadness make it back to headquarters just as Riley is executing her plan and boarding the bus to Minnesota. They did such a great job in these sequences of making the happy little girl we see at the beginning look kind of dead inside. It isn’t really her. But Joy tells Sadness that Riley needs her and she takes the control board and wakes Riley up and she gets off the bus. Then she goes home and tells her parents ‘I miss home…I know you need me to be happy but I feel sad and need to be sad”. Her parents admit they also miss home and are also sad. Like I said this is the moment where she is no longer their goofy child but an equal emotionally and it is so beautiful. I’m tearing up just writing about it. There is such a sense of peace and comfort with the 3 of them embracing on the floor at Riley’s level. As great as the opening scene in Up is, this is a nearly equally strong closing scene. I love it soooo much.
We then understand that Riley is back to being who she is and is ready to embrace San Francisco and all the changes in her life. She is finally able to recognize and express all her emotions including sadness and is a terrific teen, even if she does like boy bands. 😉 Joy is also happy in a new way. She loves all of Riley not just the ‘fun’ parts she appreciated before.
It’s interesting because I did all of that and didn’t mention any of the funny parts and there are tons of them! There are so many good jokes thrown in at every juncture. There are dialogue based jokes that kids may not get such as when Bing Bong introduces deja vu over and over again. And then there are slapstick jokes the kids will love especially with Fear and Anger and their mannerisms and expressions. Everyone will laugh at things like Angers disgust at broccoli on pizza (or broccoli in general!). The dream sequence is especially funny aside from the clown that may be a little too scary for small kids but it is short. I loved the gag with the gum commercial that is constantly stuck in Riley’s head! Another good joke was when the facts and opinions get spilled and mixed up. Bing Bong says ‘that happens all the time…”. So funny. They also did just enough of the control boards inside other people (really just one scene) which shows Riley’s frustration while getting good laughs (although it is strange that she is the only one who has both male and female emotions and why is Sadness the leader in Moms brain?). Anyway, it’s funny and the ending inside the minds is very funny. The entire family will find things to laugh at in Inside Out.
All the vocal performances are perfect and it looks beautiful. I love the way the characters are kind of fluffy on the edges. They sort of look like faerie muppets in a way. I also thought the human characters looked great. The maze of long term memory is great and I thought the sound design was brilliant. The way the globes sounded like pool balls clanging against each other was just what I would have imagined. But then when they get to the dump it sounds like charcoal, empty and hollow.
There is so much but it is a beautiful film. I was moved by it. It made me think about my life. (In fact, I wrote a blog called Core Memories over on my personal blog). It made me laugh. It was visually interesting and new. I feel inspired in every way you can be inspired by film. One of the great movie going experiences of my life.
Do you have any response to anything I have said? Did I elaborate on any points you had been feeling or open up something new you might not have realized? I’d love to discuss in the comments section. Thanks!