A Queer Vietnamese-Houstonian-New Yorker Writer musing about the arts and absurdities when not screenwriting or playwrighting

Pete Docter’s Inside Out: Hits Most of the Right Notes

Sadness Joy

Pixar’s latest animated feature Inside Out is energized on creativity and imagination, even if it’s perhaps sometimes too hyperactive for its own good. Sometimes the pacing does not give us the chance to catch our breath, but we’re still inspired to empathize with the emotions of the story.

The story was born out of paternal sincerity: it’s Pete Docter’s love-letter to his daughter and speculation he has of her psyche when she was undergoing emotional turmoil. The film opens on the infant Riley and the first joyful memory of being in the arms of her parents. Here, we are beckoned into the abstract dimension of the Riley’s mind taking shape. Joy (voiced by a sprightly Amy Poehler) emerges from the void and touches a control panel that gives Riley her first burst of happiness. Sadness (Phyllis Smith) appears to give Riley her first cry to Joy’s chargin. Other Emotions, Fear, Anger, Disgust join in. The Emotions are these animated humanoid doodles operating the controls in Headquarters so Riley can make the right choices, even if it’s a child’s definition of “good choices” (broccoli is poisonous to Disgust). They are Emotions, wanting maximum benefit for Riley, their human vessel. The film proceeds to introduce color-coded memory orbs, containing Riley’s memories and zipping through “Recall” tubes.  Then, there are the five Core Memories that fire up Riley’s Personality Islands-Goofball Island is Joy’s favorite.

Cue happy sequence of Riley’s idyllic childhood in Minnesota, dominated by brightly yellow Joyful Memories, until a move to San Francisco intervenes.

In an attempt to make a productive start in San Francisco, Joy, unintentionally egoistical and lacking in sensitivity, and eagerly excludes Sadness. It’s for Riley’s good, she tells herself, as Sadness did not prove herself to be a productive Emotion in past, only causing Riley’s tantrums and complaining. Not to mention that Sadness has this unwanted ability to turn Joyful Memories into Sad Memories with her curious touch. After the move, Riley’s mother gives Riley that sincere bedside conversation and commends her daughter for staying happy after the move and this reinforces Joy’s delusions. However, Sadness’s innocent tampering triggers a humiliating crying display in Riley’s new class, leading to the deactivation of the Personality Islands and the creation of a Sad Core Memory, which Joy desperately tries to stop. Joy and Sadness are sucked out of Headquarters, thus leaving the other negative Emotions-Fear, Disgust, and Anger-behind to throttle around the controls. As Joy and Sadness navigate their way back, they are accompanied by Riley’s old imaginary friend Bing Bong (voiced by a jovial Richard Kind), a heffalump-esque combo of a elephant, cotton-candy, dolphin, eh whatever, who wants to be recalled by Riley.

Docter makes the courageous decision to not notch up the “stakes.” The film works with an simple narrative about moving away with a layer of a high-concept playground narrative, the mind of a child. The simple plot about moving away can easily be underestimated, but it develops in a relatable angle. Riley’s mood swings may be the motions of an ingrate but it never suggest that Riley’s emotions should not be dismissed. After all, Riley is a child adjusting to loss, makes a legit attempt to be happy over a drastic change, and it inspires sympathy for the situation. And despite the influx of irrational actions they cause and bicker over, Riley, or rather, her Emotions, aren’t stupid, but rather, inexperienced and insecure. Never are we guided into the condescending notion that Riley has to “get over herself” but examine how she tries to make sense of disgruntlement she cannot express.

The whimsy of the mental landscape stands in stark contrast to the gritty realism of the realistic world, but we feel the world’s warmth, especially when Riley’s parents try to comprehend what’s going on with their once-cheerful child. The parents aren’t given the most development (detractors aren’t wrong to criticize the superficial gender role stereotyping at the dinner sequence), but we still detect their underlying stress about the move and that they depend on their little girl’s happiness to survive. They emerge as more complex figures by the end in Riley’s eyes.

Here, you have abstract material that works on a profound planes in psychological terms. Jargons and terms like “depression” don’t have to be spoken but demonstrated. Joy and Sadness are searching to regain control, but they are wandering the back of the mind as the other negative Emotions are left to control Riley. At first, it seems that Joy’s myopic philosophy will gets it way at the end, but the film chides the notion that happiness is always a positive force. Sadness is slow to grow out of her morose shell but becomes adept at comforting others because she has the patience to hear out concerns rather than pretend it’s easily fixable. Because of this, she can succeed where Joy fails and is able to share an introspective moment with Bing Bong, who’s also a heavy source of the film’s heart. He begins to understand that his days as an imaginary friend in Riley’s mind is numbered, and the end of his character arc leads to a line that’s sneakily resonate.

The mind landscape is a playground spectacle, including the priceless scene which leads to an explosion of abstract comedy, like something out of The Amazing World of Gumball, that I won’t let my words spoil. But at times, comedy disturbs and distracts from levity rather than co-exist with it. After much of the darker moments, the film seems all too eager to revert back to hijinks, which can sacrifice a great deal of potential. The clever gags can be hilarious and awe-inducing, but it passes over crucial opportunities. We seem to enjoy the laughs rather than tap more into the girl’s psyche. At one point, Joy spills a box of “Opinions and Facts” and gets them mixed up and it’s set to induce laughs about the gag rather than contemplate on its meaning.

Although the B-Story Emotions, Anger, Disgust, Fear, are fun characters and have good intentions, they are too dependent on the main character Joy to be fully developed. Docter misses an opportunity to develop an arc for them. Although they share a conversation that suggest they want to be a positive force for Riley without Joy, they continue to operate on a negative force and never learn to staunch the negative affects of Joy and Sadness’s absence. Imagine a more lucrative B-plot where they actually did learn a few productive ways to navigate Riley even if they falter. At least, the B-story Emotions are noticeably downplayed, as if the animators sensed that they were at a loss with them and only brought them in whenever it wants to further instigate Riley’s downward spiral or showcase slapstick hijinks.

But the sadder darker moments aren’t glossed over and gives a much repeated, yet still needed moral for today: happiness isn’t a remedy for everything and we shouldn’t trivialize an emotional outburst. The screenplay is the strongest when the situation accommodates for the character development, such as the quiet and sincere moments where Sadness recounts memories she does not know how to fully articulate. One of such moments is the fleeting memory of Riley standing alone in a storm and shivering. It doesn’t seem significant, and Sadness can only explain the moment but cannot answer the why. And we realize, we too had those tiny moments of sadness we can’t make sense of.


This is not the first Pixar film to deal with the worth of small moments, so ephemeral that can be happy at first, but then sadly nostalgic in retrospect, like moment where Sadness “contaminates” the Joyful Memories. Remember Docter’s Up, which valued the small moments over the epic-scale adventure, as a character contemplates on the memory of counting the passing cars over ice cream-“That might sound boring, but I think the boring stuff is the stuff I remember the most.” It’s been a perpetual Pixar motif about how it’s those smaller moments you ultimately treasure the most. Yet, it never cease to remind us the little things. It never gets old and this film reminds you, yes, small things always will matter. They may be a tiny as the memory orb, but, boy, is it easy to underestimate their weight.

We have held Pixar to high expectations, reasonably so out of affection rather than sternness. Because we bound to remember their masterpieces (WALL-E, Up, Finding Nemo) and their old golden streaks, we’re still conditioned to view this Pixar piece through a maximalist lens. After the mediocre Brave and the simple, but still candid Monsters University, Inside Out is Pixar’s uphill climb back to the pedestal.

You might happily frame and imagine Pixar’s brain mythology into the workings of your own mind. You wish there was more space, running time, to breathe, so that the world of Inside Out may feel more expansive and profound. But the payoff is still appropriate and bittersweet, like a pleasant memory orb of that great motion picture you will rewind and recall. With the much needed tint of sadness too.



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