In Inside Out, we follow the emotions inside the brain of a little girl named Riley: anger, joy, sadness, anxiety and disgust. As Riley’s family moves to a new city to start a new life, Riley has great trouble losing her friends and adapting to the moving. In the control room of her brain, everything starts to go wrong.
At the start of the movie, there is a lot of explaining to do how the “World inside the Brain” works. The main characters are five emotions who observe what the girl experiences from a kind of Cartesian theatre, which is a control room where the information of our senses comes together on a sort of view screen. From their control room they push buttons to make her feel this way or that way, and the memories that are created are thus colored by one of these emotions.
This is a rather complex and abstract concept for kids. It has been done before in other shows but the internal landscape in Inside Out is more complex than shown before. There are islands of interest, and the subconscious and so on. As Riley goes through her life, this internal landscape is animated and we see it working. Some of the jokes about this emotion-land are for adults, really. For example, of the subconscious one character says to another that we ban things there that we do not like. It makes sense to adults who know that humans are sometimes not conscious about where their emotions come from and how forgotten events can still impact your behavior in later life.
What Inside Out does really well is the way it shows how an emotionally traumatic experience is reflected by changing emotions inside the mind. As Joy and Sadness get lost and no longer have access to the Cartesian theatre, Riley in the real life doesn’t have access to those emotions and this perfectly reflects how people behave in a changed way as they try to deal with a traumatic experience but aren’t ready to face and digest the painful emotions yet. What happens when you push away feelings of sadness about a tragedy in your life is that the rest of your behavior shapes itself around this avoidance of feelings. And we see the girl get angry and evasive instead, and she finds it impossible to be joyful about certain things and focused on what she used to like while her pain is not digested yet.
The removal of Joy and Sadness from the control room makes perfect sense with how people behave in normal life. It tells me that the scriptwriters for Inside Out took an intelligent look at how emotions actually work in people and applied that correctly to the movie. I am very impressed by this. This careful look at how emotions work also helps to make the eventual ending and return of Joy and Sadness, and the release of painful emotions, that more powerful. I cried in the theatre when it happened, because I know from my own life what these moments feel like. Not only make the characters Joy and Sadness a triumphant return to the control room, but the release of sadness and facing those emotions by the girl are a heroic deed in the real life storyline.
Another smart thing in the movie is how when your perspective on events change as you grow older, memories from the past change in meaning for you. What used to be a happy occasion may become a sad memory when you lose someone from your life, for example. We see this as Sadness touches the memory balls who then change in color.
One thing that holds the movie back a little is the fact that the main characters are emotions, and therefore are very simple in their motivations and reactions. The main character Joy actually becomes a bit tiring because she is so optimistic. Sadness becomes tiring because she is sad. But that means that they are hard to relate to. We relate to Riley because she has different emotions but emotions are the building blocks of characters and not characters in themselves.
Overall I think that this is a very intelligent and beautiful animation. It is emotionally intelligent and gripping and I would recommend it to both children and adults.
Seen in the wider world of today’s animation, Pixar is no longer the only studio to make high quality 3D animations. The recent movies How to Train Your Dragon 1 & 2 and Big Hero 6 show us that gripping and beautiful 3D animation is made in other places and Pixar has an image of quality to uphold in the face of that. I’d say that Inside Out rates similarly to those movies in quality and does not eclipse them, but the subject matter is more daring.