Cinematic Treasure in the Mind’s Eye

Pixar’s "Inside Out" is fun, delightful and touching, perfect for an afternoon outing with the little ones

MPAA Rating: PG
USCCB Rating: A-II
Reel Rating: (5 out of 5)

In a decade filled with endless sequels, remakes, and reboots—Pixar being guilty of this as much as any studio—Inside Out is an absolute treasure. It is a very original film, containing a myriad of sparkling landscapes and compelling characters, none of them ever seen before, yet all of them having an intimate familiarity. It’s so beautiful in story and substance that it firmly places Pixar back on its pedestal while indicating new creative avenues for cinema as an art form in the 21st century.

Director Pete Doctor (Monsters Inc, Up) takes considerable time to set up the inner working of the eleven year old Riley’s mind. Her conscious ego is formed by five primary emotions: Joy (Amy Poehler), Sadness (Phyllis Smith), Disgust (Mindy Kaling), Anger (Lewis Black), and Fear (Bill Hader). They use memories, captured in little glass balls, to create Riley’s personality and inform her decisions, storing them in a vast labyrinth of shelves that look like a brain.

Although each of them helps Riley, Joy acts as her base mood and primarily works the control station. All is well until Riley’s family relocates to San Francisco, two thousand miles away from her childhood home in Minnesota and a world away from her friends and cultural heritage. Joy finds herself completely unprepared, following Riley’s core memories into the abyss of long term storage. She has to find her way back with the help of gloomy Sadness and Riley’s forgotten imaginary friend Bing Bong (Richard Kind). Disgust, Anger, and Fear do their best to help Riley adapt to a new school, but their solutions could push Riley into a mental breakdown and a mistake that could alter her life forever.

Riley operates mostly through Joy due to an excellent childhood with two supportive and happy parents. Although she has a bubbling personality, Joy is a little bit of a control freak, only occasionally allowing other emotions to have a say. When Sadness asks to help with a problem, Joy draws a circle around her. “Just stay in this line,” she says gleefully. However, the move causes many of Riley’s previously joyful memories to turn sad; they remind her of home. At first, Joy tries to prevent these newly colored orbs from informing Riley’s mind but this leads to a destruction of her personality and a shutdown of her will.

Gradually, Joy realizes that Sadness is better equipped and lets her take the helm. By admitting her suffering to her parents, Riley further connects with them, helping her process these new experiences and feelings. It shows how important it can be to allow negative emotions to be felt and understood rather than sweeping them into the subconscious and forgetting them entirely.

Eleven going on twelve, Riley is maturing in her thought process. Unlike the simpler mind of a child, many of Riley’s new memories contain a variety of emotions shaping a more stable personality. Feelings are indicators of how the soul understands situations; they are formed by the conscience to give an instinctual “reflex” to new information. They are not, however, always correct. Riley must master her emotions to make prudent choices. When she ignores her feelings, she loses her ability to reason and empathize. When she gives over completely to them, she is a servant to her limited understanding rather than objective truth. It is the will that must command the emotions, using the gift of psychology properly to grow in holiness.

I mentioned that Inside Out is beautiful; it bear repeating, as this movie is truly beautiful. Each emotion is based on an archetypal design with vibrant colors: Joy a star, Sadness a teardrop, Fear a nerve, Disgust a head of broccoli, and Anger a brick. As Joy makes her way back to Riley’s ego, she visits a number of areas including Dream Productions, Imaginationland, the Subconscious Prison, and the Abstract Thought room. Most dramatic is the Forgotten Abyss where unneeded memories fade away.

The imagination is one of God’s greatest gifts that comes directly from His divine nature. People can use it to absorb and engage information in way that helps them better understand God and his Creation. Inside Out is one of the most imaginative films in recent memory. Pete Doctor uses the medium of animation to make the difficult subject of the inner workings of the heart and mind immediately accessible in a fun way. Man participates in the ever continuing process of creation through deeper and deeper contemplation, one of the earthly activities that continues in Heaven.

Inside Out is fun, delightful and touching, perfect for an afternoon outing with the little ones. (My two-year old son was quiet through all ninety minutes, although the giant bag of popcorn may have had something to do with it.) Yet the story within a story is remarkably sophisticated and clearly based on years of sound research. This is the best Pixar venture since Up and the wisest approach to emotions since the sad passing of a cardigan-wearing American hero nearly a decade ago. It echoes his timeless words: “it’s such a good feeling to know you’re alive, it’s such a happy feeling you’re growing inside.” What a beautiful film.

Post-Script: Like most of Pixar’s delights, Inside Out is preceded by a short cartoon called “Lava,” a love story between volcanoes done in a Hawaiian cultural style. Sad and soulful, it’s so—yes—beautiful.

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About Nick Olszyk 189 Articles
Nick Olszyk teaches theology at Marist Catholic High School in Eugene, Oregon. He was raised on bad science fiction movies, jelly beans, and TV shows that make fun of bad science fiction movies. Visit him online at his website, Catholic Cinema Crusade.