Joy! That’s the emotion you want, the one that we’re always told is the most important. Being happy and positive and cheerful are the exalted states of being; all others are problems, and have to be solved.
In Inside Out, the new Pixar film from possibly-actual-genius Pete Docter, Joy is the emotion that steers the ship inside young Riley’s mind. Joy was the first emotion to show up in Headquarters when Riley was born, and she’s the one who lords it over the other emotions - Fear, Anger, Disgust and, most of all, Sadness. Sadness, who appeared in Headquarters second. Sadness, who can’t keep her hands off Riley’s memories, permanently altering happy ones into blue-tinged melancholic recollections.
When Riley’s family uproots her from her happy Minnesota home and drag her to the drab, overwhelming San Francisco, things really go crazy. Riley’s already at that age when her emotions start getting out of hand, but the chaos in her life - and the way her parents aren’t dealing with the changes that well either - takes it all to the next level. And that emboldens Sadness, who feels compelled to play with Riley’s Core Memories, the foundation stone pieces that power her Islands of Personality, the masses that make her who she is. There’s Family Island, Hockey Island, Truth Island, Friends Island and Goofball Island, all adding up to the personality of one 11 year old girl. What happens when you screw with those Core Memories?
Joy doesn’t want to find out, and so - just as she has since the beginning, when Sadness was making newborn Riley cry and Joy was trying to make her laugh - Joy tries to suppress Sadness, and in the process accidentally gets both of them shunted out of Headquarters, deep into the labyrinth of Riley’s Long Term Memory. Together they must make their way back to Headquarters while the remaining emotions do their best to guide the girl through harrowing days at a new school and exhausting nights with her frazzled parents.
It’s easy to assume that Inside Out is about how important Joy is to Riley, but there’s a clue early on that things might be different - we see inside the Headquarters of her mom and dad, and Sadness and Anger are running the shows there respectively. As the movie goes on - press saw about an hour of it at the Pixar Studio last week - it becomes clear that Pete Docter doesn’t want to conquer Sadness. He wants to embrace it.
"We all want happiness in our life,” Docter said in an interview after the screening. “I mean, there are so many books on like how to be happy and what you need for happiness, and you want that for your kid too! You want your kid to be happy. We literally tell our kids don't be sad, and yet there is a real value to all the other emotions that are part of the richness of life. It's not until you really recognize that you really have the ability to connect with the world in a deeper way.”
“We even tried pairing Joy up with Fear, like [asking] what were the right kind of key emotions you go through in junior high,” said producer Jonas Rivera. “We kept coming back to Sadness. It felt a little more truthful.”
Joy is a pixie, made of zillions of little particles of light, always bouncing around and voiced with the infectious enthusiasm of Amy Poehler. Sadness, meanwhile, is short and dumpy and blue, stuffed in a sweater and hiding behind oversized glasses. Phyllis Smith of The Office voices her… perfectly. Their push and pull, especially as they explore the recesses of Riley’s mind in an attempt to get back to Headquarters, informs everything that’s happening.
Imagine if the rich emotional complexity of the first ten minutes of Up - the happiness and the tragedy, the love and the sorrow - were stretched out for an entire film. That’s how the hour of Inside Out we saw (they stopped the film just as it got to the third act) felt. This doesn’t feel like old, pre-sequelitis Pixar - this feels like a new, even smarter and braver Pixar. The level of emotional maturity on display was extraordinary, and as Sadness and Joy try to find their way home their actions have real consequences - Riley’s Islands of Personality begin falling away. In some ways Inside Out has the biggest stakes of any movie of the year, even though most of it takes place inside the head of a girl, because what’s happening in there will determine the woman she grows up to become.
For Docter, that woman is someone who has a healthy relationship with Sadness.
“In America you read about people medicating to avoid sadness. They don't want to experience sadness... and yet it's such a vital part of being human.”