People just love Inside Out, the new Pixar entertainment, which takes place mostly inside the mind of an eleven-year-old girl, Riley, after she’s uprooted and moved by her parents from an idyllic Minnesota to a grim, fog-bound San Francisco. They love it in the way that everyone got used to loving Pixar movies, back in the days when every new outing was magical and the company could do no wrong — before the disappointment of Brave, that is, and the sequelitis of Cars 2 and Monsters University. They love it because it’s about childhood and memory and growing up and loss and sadness and oh it will just make you cry and cry and cry.
As you can probably tell, I didn’t entirely love it myself, though after holding out for two-thirds of the movie I did end up choking up a little bit. I won’t tell you exactly what was happening when I succumbed, but suffice it to say it involved Bing Bong, an elephant-ish imaginary friend who’s been rattling around Riley’s subconscious ever since she outgrew playing with him years ago. If you see the movie, you’ll recognize the moment; just have your handkerchief ready and you’ll get through it.
So yes, Inside Out got to me, as it will inevitably get to you, whether you’re a parent or merely an ex-child. That’s what the movie is designed to do, and that’s part of what I (very mildly) disliked about it: It felt too precision-engineered for tear-jerking, too much of a play for the “It is Margaret you mourn for” sentiments of parents, a little too self-consciously clever in its world-building for its own narrative good.
(Keep in mind, though, that I was one of six people who didn’t love Ratatouille, so I have a track record of thoughtcrime when it comes to Pixar. Proceed at your own risk.)
The inside of Riley, the movie’s primary setting, is a landscape of personified emotion, in which five feelings share a control room and cooperate in shaping her memory and personality. Though “cooperate” might be a misleading word, because the bright and faintly Tinkerbell-ish Joy (Amy Poehler) is clearly running things from the get-go, with the rest of the gang — the eye-rolling Disgust (Mindy Kaling), the spastic Fear (Bill Hader), the ranting Anger (Lewis Black), and the plump, droopy Sadness (Phyllis Smith) — dancing to the tune she sets. (Sadness in particular is treated strictly as a fifth wheel, condescended to by everyone, kept away from the control panel, and denied permission to touch Riley’s shimmering “core memories,” lest she infuse them with the blues.)
The Joy-run system works because Riley’s life has always been, well, joyful: She’s an adored, hockey-playing only child whose parents take her cheerfulness for granted. But the move to San Francisco throws everything into confusion, and Joy’s upbeat approach no longer suffices to deal with loneliness, first-day-of-school trauma, vanished friends, and more. Worse, her martinet tendencies lead to a control-room meltdown, which tosses her and Sadness (and a bag full of core memories) out into the wider geography of Riley’s mind, from which they must trek back to headquarters before the Fear-Disgust-Anger troika turn the poor girl into a depressive runaway.
The landscape that Joy and Sadness cross is ingeniously devised: There are specific “islands” (Family, Hockey, Goofball) that define Riley’s personality, huge canyons of stored memory, a literal train of thought, worker drones over here and relics like Bing Bong over there, a cavernous subconscious (inhabited by various childhood terrors), and a vast, perilous abyss where unused memories fall and disappear. (A number of critics have mentioned The Phantom Tollbooth as an inspiration for the psycho-geography attempted here.) And as Riley’s real life gets worse and the feelings inside the control room mismanage her relationships, the landscape begins to fall apart, with islands crumbling and precious memories skittering on the edge of the abyss.
Navigating this crumbling terrain is hard enough, but what Joy actually needs to do, of course, is learn how to let Sadness have her share of control, to stop repressing unhappy thoughts and let a fuller palette of emotion infuse memory and mind. Since this is a Pixar movie, it’s safe to reveal that this is what ultimately happens (a version of Inside Out directed by Michael Haneke might have a slightly different ending for little Riley); it won’t spoil the twists and turns, the many clever jokes and highbrow sight gags along the way.
What you won’t find along the way, unfortunately, is a character or a relationship quite as affecting or relatable as the best of what Pixar has offered in the past. Riley and her parents are as flat as you’d expect from characters portrayed as puppets for their feelings, and the feelings themselves never quite escape their (again, deliberately) one-note personalities. Joy and Sadness are well voiced and nicely drawn, but they aren’t as full-fledged as Woody and Buzz Lightyear or Marlin and Dory or the Incredible family, and the stakes in their quest never actually seem that high, because they have no purpose higher than Riley, and Riley has no personality apart from them.
Or rather, perhaps, they have no purpose higher than the feelings they’re meant to inspire in you, the nostalgic moviegoer, and I resent a little being asked to weep when there’s nobody on the screen that I actually care enough about to weep for.
Except for that (sniffle) bleeping Bing Bong. He’s — well, pardon me, I have to go have another cry.