Ladies and gentleman—Pixar’s back, telling toon-tales for tots and tweens, with tech skills nobody else can touch!
The wonderfully inventive “Inside Out,” Pixar’s latest, is about the human emotions of mad, sad, glad, fear, and disgust—anthropomorphized into little cartoon characters who live in our brains. It tells the story of how they help us run our lives.
It’s a sort of epistemology lesson for the Ken and Barbie doll set, and parents may learn something as well.
The Riley-Ship Enterprise
Riley’s an 11-year-old girl (voiced by Kaitlyn Dias). She and her parents (Diane Lane, Kyle MacLachlan) move from bucolic Minnesota to a run-down house in San Francisco.
Moving to a different house is very high on the all-time stress list, and so we get the blow-by-blow of Riley’s transition of leaving friends, her disgust at the new house, teary breakdown introducing herself at her new school, and so on. We experience all this from inside Riley’s head.
Riley’s eyes function similarly to the windshields of the starship Enterprise in “Star Trek,” or the Millennium Falcon in “Star Wars.”
Riley’s five little spirits, er, emotions, run around the console in the control room, with the primary emotion—the perky Joy (voiced by Amy Poehler)—in charge. She’s a sort of lemon-yellow Captain Kirk with blue hair.
Blue-colored Sadness (voiced by Phyllis Smith of “The Office”) acts like Debbie Downer of “SNL” and looks like a chubby version of turtle-necked Velma from the ’70s cartoon “Scooby Doo.”
Red-colored Anger (Lewis Black), purple-colored Fear (Bill Hader), and green-hued Disgust (Mindy Kaling) make up the rest of the assistant emotions.
How Memories Are Made
Experiences are delivered to the control room by various chutes, ramps, and conveyor belts, like an old game of Mousetrap, in the shape of giant, glow-in-the-dark marbles—colored according to the emotion associated with it.
Most normal childhood memories are joyous, but some get stored, others dumped, and a special few get labeled and archived as core memories. The core memories sustain the islands, which we’ll get to in a minute.
Below the control room is the vast panorama of Riley’s psyche—there’s an entire, vast world out there! There’s even a train of thought!
Dreams are manufactured in—wait for it—a dream factory, which looks suspiciously like the sound stages of “Guiding Light” and “All My Children,” with boom mics, cameras, and union teamsters.
There are five great islands, which collectively look like a Six Flags-type theme park: Family, Friendship, Goofball, Hockey, and Honesty. No island is stable; they’re linked directly to what appears to be the state of Riley’s moral standard—for example, stealing Mom’s credit card causes Honesty island to start disintegrating.
In turn, the islands float on the brink of a great abyss of forgetfulness: a deep, dark ravine full of mountains of fading memory-marbles, many of which have already disintegrated into dust.
Dust janitors examine these memory-marbles (more the size of bowling balls) and salvage this or that memory: A piano lesson bowling ball is salvaged for “Chopsticks” and “Heart and Soul,” and the rest are discarded. It’s surprising how some of the contrived ideas in this kids’ cartoon ring with truthful resonance.
And then there’s the subconscious, where they take all the troublemakers. We catch glimpses of broccoli, the dark stairs to the basement, and grandma’s scary vacuum cleaner.
The Adventure Begins
On one particularly stressful Riley day, Joy and Sadness accidentally get sucked out of the control room of the Riley-ship Enterprise and marooned in “long-term” (memory), which looks like a giant maze of memory-marble stacks.
Things are changing in Riley’s life! They are forced on a journey fraught with danger, across the interior country, back to the control room. If they don’t make it back soon, Riley might forget how to feel anything!
Out there, on the Outer Limits, they run into Riley’s long-forgotten invisible friend Bing Bong (Richard Kind), a sort of fuzzy pink elephant-type of being, whose teardrops are made of candy, and who shows them how to take various shortcuts, one of which goes through the abstract thought area, where Joy, Sadness, and Bing Bong are morphed from three- into two-dimensional forms, and then into lines that only retain their different colors.
Because it’s abstract thought, their shapes recall some of the signature flourishes of abstract and surreal artists, à la Miro, Kandinsky, and Dali. Which is all exceedingly clever, but which only adults will get.
Where It’s Leading
All these sacrifices and compromises of upcoming adulthood are putting Riley ever closer to puberty, which results in Sadness compulsively tinging Riley’s favorite joyous memories with sad blueness.
Joy, as the primordial childhood leader of the emotions gang, is disturbed by this. But the early teen years sometimes bring the blues to the gold of childhood, don’t they? Perhaps the sequel (and there’ll be a sequel) will show Riley in her late teens/early twenties angry young woman phase, where Anger will run the show and marbles will look like atomic fireballs.
Generally speaking, kids may miss the less busy narrative flow of a “Toy Story.” After all, this is a cartoon version of Epistemology 101!
But this is very good stuff; kids get to learn that their sadness is valid, that their joys, as they recede into the past, will become a little bit sad too, which is called bittersweetness, and that it’s all good. “Inside Out” is endearing, inventive, sensitive, and funny.
Some of the best and more hilarious bits come right at the end, where we jump out of Riley’s head and into various other sentient beings’ heads: Dad, Mom, a pubescent boy, a dog, and a cat. You know that thing cats do, where for no apparent reason they freak out, bounce off the walls, and flail madly away? To see the logical reasons for this, visually explained, in the kitty-brain, will leave you on the floor in stitches.
The Concept’s Already Used in Schools
To teach children more effectively, Rudolf Steiner schools (also known as Waldorf schools) have used a concept from the Middle Ages. The four basic human temperaments: choleric, melancholic, sanguine, and phlegmatic.
The temperaments break down as follows:
Choleric: the emotion is anger; color is red; season is autumn; element is fire.
Melancholic: sad, blue, winter, earth.
Sanguine: joy, yellow, spring, air.
Phlegmatic: calm, green, summer, water.
In other words, mad, sad, glad, and laid-back. By diagnosing and sorting out the four temperaments, Waldorf teachers are able to create a streamlined classroom dynamic, focused for learning, that works like a charm.
For example, the Steiner education system considers there to be no such condition as “ADHD” or attention deficit hyperactivity disorder. It’s just a jacked-up form of the sanguine temperament (easily toned down by removing sugar from the diet). And children, in general, are sanguine (whereas in middle age, we become more phlegmatic, and in old age, we tend toward melancholic).
But if you collect the classroom’s truly short-attention-span sanguine children and seat them all next to each other, their collective, excessive fidgeting will get on their collective nerves, and they’ll all simmer down and focus. It’s actually hilarious. I attended a Waldorf school and have seen it in action. Excellent common sense from Dr. Steiner. It turns the conventional schoolroom … inside out.
Director: Peter Docter
Starring: Amy Poehler, Phyllis Smith, Richard Kind, Bill Hader, Lewis Black, Mindy Kaling, Kaitlyn Dias, Diane Lane, Kyle MacLachlan
Running Time: 1 hour, 34 minutes
Release Date: June 19
4 stars out of 5