Disney-Pixar’s most recent animated film takes a look at the inner-workings of a little girl’s emotions.
Riley is a young girl from the midwest who was born to a loving mother and father. This movie shows her life from the perspective of the 5 basic emotions that help to guide her through life. There’s Joy (Amy Poehler), who’s responsible for happiness and overall positivity. Sadness (Phyllis Smith) creates sad memories and feelings. Fear (Bill Hader) is responsible for making sure RIliey keeps herself safe. Disgust (Mindy Kaling) prevents Riley from getting into anything unpleasant, like bad food or awkward social situations. Then there’s Anger (Lewis Black) who’s responsible for Riley’s angry or violent responses. The 5 of them work together in Riley’s Headquarters (I guess that would be her brain) and constantly monitor her and while they create and manage the memories that make her who she is.
When Riley’s family moves from the Midwest to San Francisco, her emotions struggle to keep things under control. Joy, who’s been Riley’s primary emotion fights to keep her upbeat. However, as things continue to change for Riley her other emotions, mostly Sadness, have a harder time not contaminating the work that Joy is doing. While attempting to suppress Sadness, Joy gets both of them sucked out of Headquarters and into expanses of Riley’s mind. That leaves Riley ruled by the emotions of Anger, Disgust and Fear. Without her other emotions, she begins to lose her core memories, which were all based on Joy. As she loses the core memories, she loses touch with the things that are important to her and define her as a person. Seeing that the landscape of Riley’s mind is starting to fall apart, Joy and Sadness struggle to find a way back to Headquarters before Riley does something extreme.
Trying to dissect the human psyche down into 5 base emotions, in a way that will hold up as a movie, is pretty daunting task. One that they pull of pretty admirably in this movie. When I first heard the concept of this movie I had trouble visualizing how it would actually be pulled off. Then, someone pointed out to me that the concept had actually already been done by an old Fox sitcom called Herman’s Head. Even so, Disney-Pixar’s take on the concept was much more poignant than it’s sitcom predecessor.
Like most kids movies now, the movie works on several levels. The more straightforward point of the movie is that it’s okay not to be happy all the time and that Sadness (the character and the emotion) has a purpose. The secondary point would be that changes don’t have to be bad. On another level, if you’ve ever moved as a kid (or maybe an adult) you’ll probably be able to empathize with Riley’s feelings in this movie. And, if you’re a parent who’s ever moved with a kid, this movie might feel like a little bit of a guilt trip. Even if you don’t fit into either one of those categories, this movie has a lot of moments that really try to pull at your heart strings. I don’t think that Disney-Pixar’s done a movie that had me so close to feeling feelings since that opening sequence in UP. Beyond that, there’s a lot of great comedy and insight as the emotions interact with each other and the outside world, and as we see inside other people’s heads.
In the movie, everyone has their own unique headquarters and control panel. Different emotions are at the helm for different people (or animals) and they react to certain situations differently. For example, we see inside both of Riley’s parents minds at dinner after she’s had a particularly bad day at school. All 15 (well at this point, 13) emotions play off of each other to create a situation that most families have lived through. I actually wish that they spent more time jumping into other people’s heads because those were some of the funniest parts of the movie.
I think the movie did a really good job of breaking depicting the 5 emotions working as part of a whole within a human being. They show how they can all affect a decision of anything from handling a big life event to getting dressed for school. They also do a great job depicting (in a fundamental way) how people can lose parts of themselves as they have to grow up. In the movie, Joy and Sadness meet Riley’s imaginary friend Bing Bond (Richard Kind) who represents a lot of what Riley was as a child. BTW, Bing Bong may be one of the best characters in this whole movie. He ultimately has to make a decision about whether or not it’s important for Riley to keep him or to be able to move forward with her life.
The one emotional depiction that did seem a little off to me upon first viewing was Riley not being able to feel emotions. Because Riley’s core emotions were all associated with Joy, she started to lose them when those emotions were triggered with no joy present. After her core emotions had all been corrupted enough she lost them and, apparently, lost the ability to feel anything. At first, my only thought was, “are they saying that she’s turned into some kind of sociopath?” However, after thinking about it, I believe that they were talking about a kind of emotional shutdown. Still, it was the one point of the movie that just didn’t click for me.
It does sounds silly to say that something felt off in a movie with anthropomorphic emotions, but I think that’s a credit to how well the other characters were. The emotions were all cast pretty well. The actors were known quantities who’s public personas already kind of embody the emotion they were cast as. They way they were animated as a kind of colored ethereal mass given form by an invisible force was a really good choice. It makes them look both solid and tangible, but not real. That along with the depiction of the inside of Riley’s mind pulled everything together into a colorful and believable environment.
I don’t know if this is the best Disney-Pixar movie that’s been made, but it’s definitely a good one. It is, easily up to the high standard that viewers have come to expect from this studio. It’s got just the right balance of heart and humor and has a theme that so human that it pretty much guarantees that it’ll be watched for a long time.