After a few underwhelming years with “Monsters University,” “Brave” and “Cars 2,” Pixar returned this past weekend with “Inside Out.” And what a return it was: with $91 million in just three days, the film racked up Pixar’s second best opening ever and its best opening for an original movie.
The success has likely been led by the glowing reviews. Oscar buzz is already circulating for Pete Docter and Ronnie Del Carmen’s nearly universally acclaimed film, marking a return to Pixar’s glory days. Many fans, including myself, believe “Inside Out” to be among the very best of the studio’s output, but the film isn’t just a great one —it’s also a potentially important one.
The film’s story follows Riley (Kaitlyn Dias), an eleven-year-old girl whose happy, uncomplicated life is thrown into chaos when she leaves her friends behind due to her family moving from Minnesota to San Francisco. Her turmoil is shown literally through the emotions that drive her: Joy (Amy Poehler), Sadness (Phyllis Smith), Fear (Bill Hader), Anger (Lewis Black) and Disgust (Mindy Kaling).
Joy has been essentially in charge since day one, looking over the various complex elements that drive Riley, most notably the formation and storage of memories, with “core” memories going on to drive “islands” that form her personality — Friendship, Family, Honesty, Goofball and Hockey (the latter probably seems a little odd to most, until you think of how many of us reading this have a Cinema island in our heads somewhere). Joy sees the value in some of her colleagues —Fear stops Riley from getting hurt, Disgust forms her taste, first in food and then in fashion and social skills. But Sadness? Sadness doesn’t do anything, She occasionally sneaks onto the controls governing Riley when no one’s looking and makes her cry, but for the most part she just hangs around, being kind of a bummer.
Things seem to be getting worse when the main story of “Inside Out” picks up: Sadness keeps touching, even tainting, Riley’s memories, which she can’t explain or even control. This frustrates Joy, who in her good-natured way tries to keep her enclosed in a “circle of sadness,” but it doesn’t work: the blue emotion makes Riley cry in front of her new schoolmates, creating a new core memory, and when Joy tries to dispose of it, both she and Sadness are accidentally ejected into the depths of Riley’s mind, leaving Fear, Anger and Disgust at the helm.
The result, which take our heroes —plus Riley’s long-lost imaginary friend Bing Bong, a part elephant, part cat, part dolphin creation made of cotton candy and voiced by Richard Kind, who stops the film from falling entirely back on the buddy formula that the studio can sometimes use as a crutch— throughout Riley’s mind from Abstract Thought to Imagination Land, is able to match Pixar’s best for gags, excitement and sheer adventure.
Yet the film’s value goes much further than pure entertainment, perhaps more than any film Pixar have made to date. On the most obvious level, the film provides a sort of basic vocabulary for children (and their parents) to talk about their emotions and what they’re going through. Some of the small handful of critics not bowled over by the movie have found fault as such —Ben Sachs of the Chicago Reader said it “feels like a clever educational short stretched to feature length.”
I’d respectfully disagree, but there’s certainly some educational benefit to the movie’s necessarily simplified and incomplete but surprisingly rigorous metaphorical conceit. For a child to be able to grasp that anger is driving him or her, or even to be able to express to a parent that sadness is in charge of them for a little while, is as major a contribution to cultural discourse as Pixar have ever made.
But the film’s power goes beyond that, and it involves Sadness. World culture, and American culture in particular, sometimes feels like it’s allergic to feeling blue. Half a century ago, Pixar’s parent corporation Disney opened its own theme park, and termed it “The Happiest Place On Earth,” and sometimes there’s been a sense that what humanity is striving for is a world where only Joy is in control.
Both diagnoses of depression and the prescription of antidepressants have been on the rise for decades: one in ten Americans is on some kind of antidepressant medication, with one in four women in their 40s and 50s taking something along those lines, as well as 5% of 12 to 19-year-olds (perhaps not coincidentally, Riley is eleven and thus on the cusp of that age group).
Now, let’s be very, very clear about what we’re discussing here, lest I be misunderstood and come across as Tom Cruise-ish. Clinical depression is an incredibly, impossibly serious condition, one that more people need to be aware of, not fewer. Antidepressants do an enormous amount to improve and save lives every single day. I certainly don’t want to downplay any of this, and that’s because neither myself nor “Inside Out” are talking about depression here. We’re talking about Sadness.
In light of the rise of antidepressants, it seems that it’s been increasingly easy to conflate clinical depression with “feeling depressed” (and anyone who’s suffered from the former knows that it feels very different from the latter). This is a desire to wipe out not just depression as a mental illness, but sadness altogether: we should all feel happy all of the time. Look at the increasing call for “trigger warnings” at colleges (as highlighted by Jill Filipovic in The Guardian), a demand that literature or content that could potentially upset students should be either flagged so it can be avoided or stricken from courses altogether in order to create “safe spaces.”
As Dr. Ramin Mojtabai, from the John Hopkins Bloomberg School Of Public Health, told the New York Times, “it’s not only that physicians are prescribing more [antidepressants], the population is demanding more. Feelings of sadness, the stresses of daily life and relationship problems can all cause feelings of upset or sadness that may be passing and not last long. But Americans have become more and more willing to use medication to address them.”
As others have pointed out, “Inside Out” fits in part in Pixar’s long tradition of coming-of-age films: Jen Chaney at The Dissolve highlights this, and Dana Stevens’ review in Slate talks about how the film highlights the sense that “growing up is both a grand triumph and an irreversible tragedy.” But just as important and indeed interlinked to this is the way that the film talks thematically about the importance of sadness.
As I said above, Joy doesn’t understand the value of Sadness, and at first, when lost with her emotional colleague, sees her as a potential hinderance rather than a help. But quickly, her blue friend proves useful: her time spent alone reading the “manuals” means that she knows the way out of the maze of long-term memory in which they’re stranded (even if Joy has to drag her around while she does it). Before too long, Sadness proves her usefulness again. Bing Bong is devastated when his song-powered rocket wagon, which he and Riley used to play on and which he hoped to journey to the moon on, is thrown into the memory dump, destined to be forgotten (and yes, this is a very strange sentence out of context).
Joy (desperate to get directions from the creature to return home) tries every cheer-up trick in her bag to brighten Riley’s imaginary friend up, but nothing works. Then Sadness sits beside Bing Bong, agrees with him about how sad his loss is, and her sympathy encourages him to share his memories of the times that he and Riley played with the wagon. This makes him cry —Bing Bong cries gumdrops and toffees— but his candy catharsis is the thing that shakes him out of his funk and enables him to continue to aid Joy on her quest (later, his tears proves useful again: our heroes follow a trail of tear-induced wrappers when he’s been locked away in the subconscious).
Even then, Joy doesn’t come to appreciate Sadness’ value, and when presented with a chance to escape back to Headquarters, she takes it at the expense of leaving her colleague behind, saying “Riley needs to be happy!” If you watch the film and conclude that it’s a rare mainstream movie without an ostensible villain, you’re mistaken: as with the original “Toy Story,” in which Woody is as much antagonist as protagonist, jealously pushing Buzz out the window, Joy is the villain of “Inside Out,” her own need to ensure that Riley is happy all the time instigating the drama and consistently overlooking the contributions of her little downbeat friend.
While they’re away, Fear, Anger and Disgust have been driving the show, deciding that the only way Riley can return to normal is by spurning her parents and running away back to Minnesota, where she created the original happy memories. But as the console starts to darken and even they are unable to drive her, the threat isn’t that Riley grows up angry or disgusted or scared. The threat is of numbness: that Riley will become unable to feel anything at all.
Director Pete Docter has said in interviews that in the earliest versions of the film, Joy was paired with Fear instead, before deciding to make Sadness central to the film. “We all want happiness in our life,” Docter told Slashfilm. “There are so many books on how to be happy and what you need for happiness and you want that for your kid too. We literally tell our kids ‘don’t be sad,’ and yet there is a real value to all the other emotions that is part of the richness of life, and it’s not until you really recognize that you really have the ability to connect with the world in a deeper way.”
Finally, Joy gets it too: she looks back at an old happy core memory of Riley celebrating with her hockey teammates, only to discover that it came about because of a sad memory of losing a hockey game. Knowing this, Joy lets Sadness take control: as with Bing Bong earlier, the only thing that is able to shake Riley out of her numb, nihilistic state is allowing herself to feel sad.
Joy’s desire for Riley to be happy all the time mirrors that of her parents: earlier in the film, Riley’s mom (Diane Lane) thanks her for being so upbeat, saying they need her to keep smiling to support her parents at a stressful time. But Riley’s pressure to be their “happy girl,” personified by Joy’s near-maniacal control freakery, is the very thing that seemingly sends her over the edge.
Fortunately, Sadness takes over, Riley returns home, and finally cracks in front of her mom and dad. In finally revealing her own fears and worries, her parents reveal they share Riley’s as well, and again, a kind of catharsis is reached: it’s an advocation for the talking cure, as it were. As a result, something new is created: memories are no longer divided into one color, but into several, and Riley’s memories of home are now necessarily tinged with blue, but they’re bittersweet and bearable. It’s here that Pixar draws the coming-of-age thread back in: life is simple in childhood, divided into purer emotions, but things gets more complex as we get older, and that’s reflected in a new console in Riley’s mind that lets more than one emotion, or indeed all of them, drive at once.
Two thousand words in, and I feel like I’m still barely scratching the surface of what the film has to say. But it’s the treatment of Sadness that rang loudest for me. “In America, you read about people medicating to avoid sadness,” Docter said in an interview to Slashfilm. “They don’t want to experience Sadness, and yet it’s such a vital part of being human.”
And what makes “Inside Out” so surprisingly sophisticated, so special and so vitally important (and makes it so thrilling that it’s proving a popular hit on such a grand scale), is that it has the potential to help this generation of children, and those following, think very differently about the role that sadness plays in their lives. What could have been a more fitting aim for a company where Joy and Sadness have always been at the wheel?