Inside Out, review: What Pixar can teach us about wellbeing

This new animated feature film will make you laugh, cry and above all think

July 30, 2015
The comedian Lewis Black, centre, provides the voice of Anger  in Pixar's Inside Out ©Dan Steinberg/Invision/AP, File
The comedian Lewis Black, centre, provides the voice of Anger in Pixar's Inside Out ©Dan Steinberg/Invision/AP, File

On its release in America, Inside Out had the biggest opening weekend for any original film in box office history, sailing easily past Avatar’s $77m to an incredible $91m. It’s already Pixar’s eighth consecutive film to have taken over $500m worldwide, and we’ve only just had the opening weekend here in the UK, where it took £7.35m. If some were beginning to worry that the studio had gone the way of Disney, following five years of prequels, sequels and the critically mixed reception to their fairy tale, Brave, this new film has proven that Pixar is still capable of the funny, surprising and layered storytelling that made its name. But the secret ingredient of this film’s success? Sadness.

Inside Out follows 11-year-old Riley and the five emotions –a joy, fear, anger, disgust and sadness – that live in the control room of her head. When Riley’s family moves away from her childhood home in Minnesota to San Francisco, she loses sight of the core memories that tell her who she is, prompting Joy and Sadness to go on a journey deep into her mind to get them back. At first, the topography of the place grates: having to catch the Train of Thought home because Honesty Island has crumbled sounds like the worst allegory since Pilgrim’s Progress, if you think about it too hard. But as Ed Catmull, Pixar’s co-founder and president, wrote in his book Creativity Inc., "If you give a good idea to a mediocre team, they will screw it up. If you give a mediocre idea to a brilliant team, they will either fix it or throw it away and come up with something better," and in the hands of Pixar’s story artists, the landscape of Riley’s mind becomes a source of novelty and humour ("There’s inductive reasoning, there’s déjà vu, there’s language processing, there’s déjà vu, there’s critical thinking, there’s déjà vu…").

It’s one of Pixar’s funniest films, the jokes coming thick and fast throughout the film in dialogue and the visuals, and you need to watch it at least twice to catch them all. Perhaps my favourite gag was watching the maintenance workers hoover up long-term memories like phone numbers ("We don’t need these! They’re in her phone"), leaving only the names of a couple of US presidents and the ditty to a chewing gum advert.

This is also a story with serious themes at its heart, which hark back to Pixar’s very first feature film, Toy Story. Both films are about growing up and moving house, which are difficult experiences for any young person. Andy’s fear and distress is played out by the toys, the whole story enacting the kind of imaginary play we might expect to see in a child’s psychological evaluation, with Woody and Buzz vying as male role models (the implication being that the family is downsizing following a divorce). When Inside Out treats the same topic, the adventure is the emotional journey itself, and we are constantly reminded of the real world implications.

At first, Joy calls the shots in Riley’s mental HQ, and she keeps life on track by being relentlessly positive, looking for the bright side in everything and telling the others to "think positive." When Sadness starts to intrude on the controls, Joy’s response is to draw a chalk circle on the ground and tell her to stand inside it. But when things go really wrong for Riley, it’s not because Sadness has taken the helm and won’t let go. Instead, the colour drains out of the console, and it stops responding to any of the emotions. As sufferers of depression attest, the problem is not overwhelming feeling but the inability to feel.

When we get a glimpse into Riley’s mother’s head at the dinner table, we can see her own Sadness is in charge of operations, and perhaps that’s why, even though Joy is generally in charge of Riley’s HQ, she has blue hair and a blue aura. Riley’s mother wants her to be a "happy girl", but as things go from bad to worse, the pressure to be happy begins to seem like the hardest thing to bear. Indeed, recent studies confirm that negativity is often our most useful companion when times are tough—it helps us anticipate problems, find solutions and empathise with others when things are going badly. It’s not negative emotions that are bad for us, but the suppression of them, especially when they are healthy, functional responses to difficult situations.

Pixar have never shied away from presenting everything that life can throw at you. Perhaps the most famous example is in the montage of Carl and Ellie’s life together at the start of Up, which, taken alone, stands as perhaps the greatest short film of all time, not just for its miracle of condensation, but for the emotional impact of their childlessness, which has reduced audiences of all ages to tears. (Careful viewers may even spot scenes from this sequence in the great bowling-ball alleys of Riley’s long-term memory.)

In the showing of Inside Out I saw, there was one moment so sad that the cinema erupted with the sound of children crying, which is just as well because I think a number of the adults were sniffing too. But the whole audience left the cinema elated. Somewhat paradoxically, the way to be really happy is to accept that we need a whole range of emotions. When Riley is born, there is only Joy inside her head, standing in front of a laughter button, but as Riley grows older, she is joined by Anger, Disgust, Fear and Sadness. When life gets really tough, Sadness is not the antagonist she first appears, but the unsung hero. This is the real lesson: Joy might be fun to hang around, but wellbeing is a team effort.