Fear (voice of Bill Hader), Sadness (voice of Phyllis Smith), Joy (voice of Amy Poehler), Disgust (voice of Mindy Kaling) and Anger (voice of Lewis Black) guide 11-year-old Riley from Headquarters, the control center inside her mind. Directed by Pete Docter (“Monsters, Inc.,” “Up”), Disney•Pixar's "Inside Out" opens in theaters nationwide June 19, 2015. ©2014 Disney•Pixar. All Rights Reserved.

Empathy is the word.

Inside Out is possibly the best Pixar film. I’m not sure how popular that sentiment will be, really, but I do think that this is a movie that will have a much wider effect than simply being great entertainment or beautifully made, and it is both those things. Being a movie that is about the human mind, it’s also a movie that takes a philosophical position on the subject and while it may not be the most rigorous or academically meritorious, it serves as a wonderful metaphor for stuff that is very difficult to talk about literally, much less translate into the kind of conventional story structure that Pixar is known for. They pulled it the fuck off, however, making Inside Out a triumph of their very special brand of emotionally sensitive, cathartic, intimate, and heartfelt films. It’s been a while since they hit a home run like this, what with all the sequels and the underrating of Brave, but I think Inside Out will remind everyone that no one does it quite like Pixar does when they’re on their game.

There’s been some criticism that Inside Out is presenting a fairly unscientific or simplistic theory of mind, which kids (and some adults) will gobble up as factual rather than understanding it as the allegorical device it’s intended as. I have little patience for such a cynical reading of the movie or what its reception will be among its target audience. I think kids will get the elemental stuff just fine, and that the nuances are there for the adults who have had the time and distance from their own childhoods, or the experience of raising kids of their own, required to fully appreciate the bittersweet nature of a story that, as Mindy Kaling put it when she read the script, is about how “it’s difficult to grow up and that it’s okay to be sad about it.”

What Pixar does so well is empathy. The really important thing about Inside Out is that it’s basically Empathy: The Movie. Empathy seems to be a big theme in entertainment lately (Sense8 and Magic Mike XXL both heavily deal with empathy), and it’s better late than never. Empathy is too often dismissed as an attempt to use sentiment to manipulate an emotional reaction from an audience. Sometimes it’s true, but sometimes it’s not and the concept of feeling for other people and understanding them is actually a real thing worth thinking about and exploring.


The familiar story is familiar by design.

Riley (Kaitlyn Dias) is an 11 year old girl from Minnesota. She has a goofy side and she loves hockey. Her parents are decent people and enjoy a pretty warm and rewarding relationship with their daughter. That is, until Dad (Kyle Chandler) gets a job in San Francisco and moves the family across the country, away from everything Riley knows and loves. Mom (Diane Lane) tries to hold it all together as setbacks and realities keep wearing away at Riley’s natural pluck and cheer.

Inside Out has taken some incredibly undeserved criticism for this story about a girl being sad and lost after a big move. Like this is a story that doesn’t matter in a world of ____ or ____ or whatever the hell. It’s like we can’t have a movie about this very familiar idea of how hard it is to move away and leave your friends, dealing with proto-adult responsibilities and big emotions for the first time in your life. As if the idea of a transition period in a young person’s life just as no traction. I don’t care if you’re not a parent, or if you were never an 11 year old girl, if you simply hate kids. This story does have traction. It matters precisely because of that delicate switch from the people we are and the people we’ll become when our comfort zones are stretched to the breaking point. Beyond this, the familiarity and simplicity of Riley’s plight are expertly chosen to support the more dramatic and outlandish story of what’s happening in her head, between the various mechanisms that make up her mind, her feelings, and how she reacts to the world.


Of all the pairings Pixar considered, it seems inevitable that it would be this.

Inside Out‘s fantasy conceit is the idea that our emotions and various other cognitive functions manifest as little brightly colored characters who are in charge of various aspects of how we think, feel, dream, and so on. Every bit of the world-building (which is awesome) and design is meant to reinforce basic ideas about the human mind, both in a physical-mechanical sense and a more metaphysical one, and keeping the audience invested in the conceit. It’s pretty masterful and intricate, with many little details that resonate as intuitive or deeply clever or both.

The Headquarters is where the five primary emotions manage the processing of experiences and the transition from experience to memory. They help people deal with the world, with children’s minds being a chaos of the emotions jostling for control (with one primary). Their control console, where they can plug ideas in and “drive” the human’s emotional outlook, develops as the children age until they become big and complex enough for each emotion to sit at the same table, becoming a more stable and democratic entity, though there is still a primary governing emotion that has the most influence on the personality.

For Riley, the primary emotion is Joy (Amy Poehler) who takes great pride and reckless enthusiasm in trying to make sure Riley has the happiest life possible, and that it stays happy in spite of the predicaments she finds herself in. The other emotions are Anger (Lewis Black), Disgust (Mindy Kaling), and Fear (Bill Hader). But the most important aside from Joy, at least for Riley, is Sadness (Phyllis Smith). With Joy in the command chair most of Riley’s life, Sadness is relegated to reading the manuals that explain how everything works and basically staying (or being kept) out of the way. It’s only when Riley can’t keep up her happy façade in the face of how turbulent her life has become that Sadness begins to have more influence. And the way the behavior of the emotions, and the performances of their brilliantly cast voice actors, informs the emotional range of these primary emotions is one of the pillars of genius shit that Inside Out rests so comfortably on. Sadness in particular begins to “infect” the joy of Riley’s memories as if by accident, constantly apologizing and constantly baffled by her impulses to “mess with” the track Joy has set out for their girl. This is brilliant stuff as I think it’s a bit of a truism that sadness is often unasked for, overlooked, and yet incredibly disruptive in spite of all attempts to control or counter it. You see it in yourself when you get low, and you see it in others when they do. The trick is understanding the role sadness has in negotiating the need for and expression of empathy, and the way it feed into other emotions to make them more significant and more deeply felt. Especially Joy. And that’s what the movie is really about.


Riley will break your fucking heart.

The tug of war between Joy and Sadness causes an accident in Headquarters where in these two very important emotions are marooned deep inside the web of cognitive functions, long term memories, and deep-set fears that make up Riley’s personality. As this happens, Riley’s “personality islands” (which are kinda like theme parks that anchor pieces of her self) begin to decay and die as her personality goes into upheaval over the stresses and pressures she is unprepared for. To make matters worse, the three emotions left are Anger, Disgust, and Fear and without the tempering influence of Joy and Sadness, they are unable to steer Riley away from the worst of her impulses and outbursts. As they lose control, so does she, and bit by bit the things that were important to her and that made her who she is begin to fade. Meanwhile, Joy and Sadness navigate the terrain of her mind with the help of Bing Bong (Richard Kind), an imaginary friend and sojourner in the forgotten corners of her mind.

Interestingly, the film doesn’t throw the “negative” emotions completely under the bus. In Riley’s case, they are children much like she is and all of them react mostly out of id with little maturity and even less good sense. But you do see how Riley’s parents are governed by Anger (Dad) and Sadness (Mom) which makes it clear early on that Inside Out is not judging some emotions to be more valid or important than others… they’re all important and they all have different jobs. Many other movies could be made about many other people using the same metaphysical juice that drives this one, and Pixar knows it. In fact, they filled the credits sequence with a love letter to this very concept, showing with a good sense of humor the inner lives of various people in Riley’s life.


Okay so yes, the parent’s minds were written for the cheap seats somewhat.

The one almost-criticism I have for the way these ideas are presented comes up during the dinner scene where Riley freaks out as her parents try to figure out how to deal with her. In the movie, it plays a lot better and with less regressive gender bullshit than it seemed in the trailer, out of context. Still, though, it’s incredibly reductive and cheesy to reduce Riley’s mom’s brain to a sewing circle of soft-spoken hens who replay memories of a ridiculous cartoon exotic suitor and who drive Mom to communicate to Dad via passive aggressive hints. Dad is no better. While his daughter is suffering because of choices he made, his mind is on sports and his “idiot male” brain goes to Defcon 1 when it’s expected of him to actually discipline his kid. As ridiculous and unwelcome as this shit is, I understood that Pixar was looking for recognizable, if not strictly fair or accurate, tropes to quickly get across a bunch of information and a cheap laugh or two at the expense of their otherwise glorious movie. The reason I can forgive this is because it’s so important for us to see, especially early on, that Riley’s Mom is governed by Sadness. It completely sets up the important role Sadness comes to have in Riley’s own mind, and the important role the movie is saying Sadness has for all of us. As Sadness if the engine of empathy in this metaphorical structure, it’s the empathy and sensitivity that are what’s really dominating Mom. She’s not depressed or crying, but she’s definitely sensitive and nurturing to the needs of her family. This underlines the multi-faceted nature of the emotions Pixar is exploring, showing us that none of them are as simple or one-note as they may at first appear.

I think it’s important to admit your biases when discussing or critiquing a piece of entertainment. Mine here are that I am the parent of an 11 year old girl and my particular 11 year old girl is exactly like Riley in the broadstrokes (except the hockey thing) which basically guaranteed that the movie was going to resonate with me. But it’s not as if this is a requirement to feeling this story, or to relating to its characters. If you want to focus on just the fantasy, the movie totally accommodates you. Joy, Sadness, and Bing Bong are incredibly relatable and right up there with the best protagonists Pixar has conjured to fill their yarns. Bing Bong, especially, gets one of the most heart-breaking moments this side of Jessie’s Song. At this point we know that Pixar has a major soft spot for the things we leave behind as we grow, to perhaps revisit with wistfulness or nostalgia later in life. Bing Bong is the avatar of that, but will still hit you like a right hook because Pixar knows exactly, exactly how do a thing they’ve done but do it well and make it fresh all over again. Maybe that’s a Pete Docter thing.


Speaking of which, Bing Bong’s design is one of those things that shows how well these guys get kids.

It’s funny how affecting the simple and colorful mindscape of Inside Out ends up being. You’ll immediately think of yourself in these terms, wondering to yourself or aloud to your loved ones which emotion is the one that sits in the big chair of your personal Headquarters. The best movies make you see the world in a different way, sure, but this is just fun stuff. The real meat is the empathy and the way the movie makes it so easy and digestible to remember the humanity of other people, and how important it is to understand their feelings, and maybe just maybe how important sadness is in a culture obsessed with the cheap happiness of quick gratification. That’s always a bit of a revelation for me personally, and I’m sure many others, because I usually have a hard time understanding or communicating in terms of sadness. Sadness is an emotion I push aside, I suppress, and I discount in others. If Inside Out convinces even a few people, even just me, to think twice about that shit… then it’s something ten times more special than a thousand fucking talking car movies about nothing.

And while we’re at it, ten times more special than a thousand fucking raptors running alongside Chris Pratt on a motorcycle. There’s no real comparison to be made, except for the only comparison that matters. As fun as Jurassic World is, and as good a time it is for the kids, Inside Out is embarrassingly more crucial, more true, and more human.