Inside Out, the newest Pixar film, directed by studio mainstay Pete Docter (Monsters, Inc., Up) and newcomer Ronaldo Del Carmen, is a fairly routine coming-of-age story. But the method of its construction, the vantage point from which we watch it unfold, is more than just a novel gimmick. What Docter and Del Carmen have done is make a family-friendly postmodernist gem. Inside Out is the Cabin in the Woods of coming-of-age movies, only with a much more potent emotional core.
Eleven-year-old Riley (Kaitlyn Dias) is our human protagonist. The more prominent narrative, however, is that of Joy (Amy Poehler), one of Riley’s driving emotions. The others who make up the young girl’s personality are Fear (Bill Hader), Disgust (Mindy Kaling), Anger (Lewis Black, of course) and Sadness (Phyllis Smith). This crew helps make Riley’s memories and then oversees their storage. The most important of these memories go on to create the tenets of her identity in the form of islands (Honesty Island, Friendship Island, Hockey Island, etc.). When Riley’s parents (Diane Lane and Kyle MacLachlan and, yes, this is the rare Disney movie with two parents) uproot the family from Minnesota to San Francisco, the inner turmoil sends Joy and Sadness on a journey through Riley’s psyche, her past and her imagination, including childhood imaginary friend Bing Bong, voiced by Richard Kind in what may be the best work of his long and excellent career.
Imagining the human mind and body as a vessel piloted and maintained by a crew of tiny workers is not a unique concept (Osmosis Jones, anyone?). But Inside Out shows more metaphorical interest in that premise than perhaps ever before. The first thing that stands out is how perfectly the film fits into the feeling that you do not have control over your own emotions. Every situation provides a person endless potential choices but it often seems that one’s anger or fear or whatever makes the decision on its own.
Of course, Inside Out is not just about metaphors. The bulk of the story is a classic adventure movie, with mismatched characters braving varied and foreign locations (The Subconscious, The Train of Thought, etc.). It also happens to be a fully realized fantasy world with its own internal logic for the audience to learn and put together. It wouldn’t be a surprise to see fans create maps of Riley’s mind the same way some do for the continents of Game of Thrones.
As fun as Inside Out is, which is plenty, its chief mode is a bittersweet one. We see some of Riley’s happiest memories change to sad ones, while still more of them are turned to dust and lost forever. Yet we’re not meant to mourn them, at least not for more than a few moments. Like the best coming-of-age films, this one recognizes and embraces the fact that, in order to grow, some parts of you must die. Letting go of those parts is both heartbreaking and necessary.
From the beginning of the movie, Joy does not understand why Sadness is a part of her team. That’s because this is Joy’s coming of age as much as it is Riley’s. After all, they were born on the same day. At first, Joy doesn’t comprehend why Sadness is the only one who can change a memory to her own blue color just by touching it. In truth, all older memories – at least the ones that are strong enough to remain over the years – become tinged with sadness simply because they are old and represent elemental moments in our lives that are gone forever. From this sadness comes melancholy and from melancholy comes wisdom. Inside Out is not just a coming-of-age movie. It’s a deconstruction of all coming-of-age movies and of the very idea of growing older.