The Intense & Emotional Experience Of Watching Inside Out

Photo: Courtesy of Pixar
In the mysterious way of siblings, my brother stores memories of feelings that once belonged to me in girlhood, but have, over the years, become too burdensome for me to keep in my own mental file cabinet.

My brother is younger than I am by four years, so he was still a kid when I was stumbling into my preteens, gawky and freckled and self-conscious about everything from my feet (so freakishly huge!) to my boobs (so stubbornly teeny!). (Also my hair: so frizzy! And my social life: a nonstarter!) Yet these days, when we hang out as adults and get to talking about the childhood we shared in the suburban house where our mom still lives, my brother will sometimes locate a memory in time by telling me it took place “before you got sad.”

The first time he used sadness as a marker, I was shocked. Really, our family was fortunate in its averageness, with none of the upheavals or rupturing traumas that qualify as real hardships in a girl’s life. Nothing “happened;” nothing was “broken.” I wasn’t “scarred.” In my retelling, I was always still “me” — wordy, wisecracking, with big feet and small boobs.

But my kid brother was right: At some point in the transition from girlhood to young womanhood, sadness joined the repertory of feelings that made me who I was, and am today. While my parents searched for signs of what my dad once called “our Lisa” in the daughter whose bouts of mopes and tears were mysteries at best (and exasperating at worst in their histrionics), their Lisa — me! — was standing right in front of them, in plain sight and full spectrum.

You, too?

The brilliance of Inside Out — the newest animated masterpiece from Pixar, and, in its way, the most profound movie you are likely to see all year — is in the gentle, almost cheery way in which it celebrates sadness as a useful, hardworking, perfectly normal, and perfectly lovable aspect of how a girl grows up. Any girl. The funny, nimble, gorgeous, conceptually daring, and wildly inventive movie takes place inside the head (naturally called Headquarters) of one girl, Riley.

Photo: Courtesy of Pixar

Riley (voiced by 16-year-old Kaitlyn Dias) lives with her mother (Diane Lane) and father (Kyle MacLachlan) in Minnesota, where she loves playing ice hockey and laughing with her best friend. For the first 11 years of her fortunate life, Riley’s personality has been guided by the emotional effervescence of Joy (Amy Poehler, perfectly cast). Accompanying Joy in Headquarters are the useful, safety-valve emotions of Anger (Lewis Black, likewise), Fear (Bill Hader, ditto); and Disgust (Mindy Kaling, inspired). Sadness (perfectly evoked by Phyllis Smith from The Office) hangs around in the background, too, although everyone else at Headquarters tries to keep her from getting underfoot.

Change, though, cannot be avoided; for Dad’s new job, the family relocates to San Francisco. And there, with Riley missing her old life and feeling overwhelmed by the challenges of adjusting to everything new, Joy and Sadness become temporarily separated from the rest of the team at Headquarters, leaving Riley’s personality in the unreliable care of Anger, Fear, and Disgust.

Joy and Sadness' venture back to the Riley her dad once called “my happy girl” is as thrilling a saga as any since — well, perhaps since Inside Out director Pete Docter sent a curmudgeonly old man and a plucky boy to South America powered by a bundle of 10,000 balloons in Up. With an elegance of imagery worthy of study for decades to come by students of psychoanalysis and screenwriting alike, Joy and Sadness improvise their way through unfamiliar landscapes of Long Term Memory, Abstract Thought, Dream Production, and Imagination. Sometimes they hitch a ride on the Train of Thought, and for a crazy stretch they are joined by Bing Bong (Richard Kind), the imaginary friend with an elephant head whom Riley left behind years ago in early childhood.

But, back to Sadness. Her contributions are underappreciated at first (they always are). In the meantime, Inside Out spins free associations, throw-away insights, deep wisdom, and great jokes (at the expense of scary clowns, useless memories, nonfigurative drawing, and earworm chewing-gum jingles) at such a clip that when Sadness is granted the place she deserves in a girl’s life, it takes a tougher lady than I am not to spill happy, tender tears.

In its remarkable history of nearly 30 years, Pixar has made layering adult-accessible emotions over kid-accessible characters, degreased of nostalgia, into an unstated mission statement: A box of toys becomes whatever the viewer needs them to be, and those needs might change from viewing to viewing. In devoting such thoughtful attention and creativity to dramatizing the inner life of girls, Pixar just may have answered the question that confounded Sigmund Freud when the old shrink asked, “What does a woman want?”

Doc, she wants to be understood, inside out.

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