Joy + Sadness = Peace
"That's the subconscious - it's where they keep all the troublemakers."
Pixar Studios has a stellar track record - from Finding Nemo to The Incredibles, Up, and Monsters University, a few of my favorites. Their movies are generally great stories, cleverly written, with good music, and most importantly, strong morals. Right is right and wrong is wrong, the characters develop and mature, and family structure is always an important factor.
I wasn't sure what to expect from this year's new Pixar, Inside Out. The story follows one little girl, eleven-year-old Riley, as her family moves from Minnesota to San Francisco, and the five major emotions inside her head - Fear, Disgust, Anger, Joy, and Sadness. At first, the concept seems a bit cheesy. In reality, it's a complex and beautiful story conveyed through Pixar's usual stellar storytelling.
Riley's parents are a bit flat, but they're genuinely loving and have a close relationship to each other and their daughter (well done, contrary to Disney's usual style.) Riley is a sweet, cheerful girl, thanks to Joy.
Joy honestly irritated me for half of the movie, perhaps because she reminds me of myself. She's strong-willed, caring, bubbly, and dominates the emotional control board. She's the one with all the good ideas, and the one who guides the other emotions to make sure Riley has a good day. Each of the emotions have distinct, engaging personalities, and each of them cares deeply about Riley's happiness. But Joy is in charge, for better or worse!
Through Joy's eyes, we see Riley experience "core memories" - moments of life-shaping emotion that have created her "islands of personality". These islands are the things Riley loves, things that make her who she is - family, honesty, hockey, silliness, and friendship. Without the memories, Riley rejects those core values, and sinks into depression; a grey, colorless shadow that shuts down all the emotions' access to Riley. Pixar masterfully presented the loneliness and despair that child can experience.
While Joy and Sadness end up stuck in long-term memory, Anger, Fear and Disgust try their best to take care of Riley without their leader. This turns into a fairly typical tween temper-tantrum, and the bright idea from Anger to run away, back to Minnesota where all the good memories were made.
In Joy's opinion, this catastrophe is all Sadness's fault. Every memory that Sadness touches turns blue, changing from happy to sad. Joy has done her best to isolate and incapacitate Sadness, while trying to keep Riley happy. Joy's answer to everything is "I can fix this," and indeed, the other emotions look to her for answers and guidance. She starts the movie with a discouraging amount of hubris,
However, the truth comes out through an adventure of frustration, sacrifice, and Joy's own coming of age. (Yes, you know me, I immediately jump to the bildungsroman!) But really, the overarching theme is indeed that of a bildungsroman, a coming of age story, for both Riley and Joy. Joy has to acknowledge Sadness's role, and realize that she alone will never be able to save the day for Riley. In her own moment of near-despair, Joy herself matures to see the value of Sadness.
After Joy and Sadness make it back to Headquarters, they're given a new control board, with a vast array of buttons and levers. They've discovered that Riley's memories and experiences aren't just made up of one emotion any more. Her day is best when there's not just one emotion in control, but when each of the emotions work together. There's more to be learned on this new control board, but already, the movie has explained the transition from childhood to adulthood.
Pixar doesn't underplay the importance of emotion, but acknowledges that balance is most important. The things of childhood are put aside, in favor of a recognition of the complexity of life. Along the way, a family's love and connection remains the anchor for both Riley and the movie.
What makes Inside Out so compelling is the reality of it. The characters, emotions, and message are all as genuine and down-to-earth as weeding the garden. The movie forces you to look inside, and look around, to understand yourself and others. No, emotions aren't everything, but they are an integral part of what makes us human. The movie is full of laughter and tears, and even a little bit of disgust, fear and anger - if you haven't felt all of those before the end of the movie, go watch it again!