Riley is a fun, goofy, hockey-loving 11 year old kid from Minnesota but take a dive into her gray matter and you’ll see towering shelves full of memories in her subconscious, cloud cities forming in her imagination and elaborate dreams taking shape.
In the control tower are Riley’s core emotions: Joy, Sadness, Disgust, Anger and Fear. They push buttons and help power Riley through each and every day, making marble-like memories all the while. Joy makes sure her youthful charge goes through life with a healthy dose of positivity and ensures that most memory marbles have that warm glow of happiness. She also does her utmost to make sure Sadness doesn’t touch anything.
But when Riley’s family uproots from Minnesota and moves all the way to San Francisco, something strange comes over Sadness. Suddenly, she wants to touch everything. And when Sadness takes control of Riley during the girl’s first day at a new school, a forlorn blue memory rolls out …
Joy grasps for the memory and tries to keep it out—but in so doing, she, Sadness and, most critically, the rest of Riley’s core memories are suddenly sucked out of the control tower and thrown into the great wide world of Riley’s fertile mind.
Riley’s instantly lost without her core memories—unsure of who she is or what she values anymore. Anger, Fear and Disgust are alone in the tower. And unless Joy can find a way back somehow—taking Sadness with her, if she must—Riley’s gonna get pretty cranky.
When Riley’s herself – she’s a delightful girl, the apple of her loving parents’ collective eye. And even though Mom and Dad are seriously stressed over the move, Riley does what she can to keep her own spirits up, for their sake as much as for hers.
When Joy is sucked out of the control tower, it becomes impossible for Riley to do much but sulk and occasionally blow up. When you’re 11 and your whole world has changed, your inner world is shaken, too. And we learn here that our emotions, even ones that might seem, on the surface, “bad,” can help stabilize things.
Riley’s parents don’t understand what’s going on with their suddenly sullen daughter, but they want to help. And so they do—through love and patience and understanding. It’s pretty obvious that Mom and Dad are great (though not always perfect) parents. The movie shows us how important family can be in the process of picking yourself up and moving on.
There’s just as much concern for Riley’s well-being inside her head as outside. All of Riley’s emotions want her to be healthy and happy—even Sadness, who sometimes feels like she just messes everything up. And there are entities running around in Riley’s brain who sacrifice everything to get her back on an even keel.
Riley is nearing puberty, and she imagines herself with a boyfriend who says, ever so dramatically, “I would die for Riley!” Riley talks to a boy, and we watch the boy’s internal brain controllers freak out over the interaction. When angry with Dad, Riley’s Mom recalls a Brazilian pilot who once asked her to run away with him. Her emotions sigh heavily when the hairy-chested memory is brought up.
Joy and Sadness, stumbling on a Hollywood back lot-like area that creates Riley’s nighttime dreams, crash the girl’s current dream by masquerading as a cheerful little dog. But when the dog costume rips apart, Riley sees it as a real dog getting suddenly cut in half, with both halves still cavorting about. A dead mouse also haunts Riley’s dreams.
A creature disappears from Riley’s mind bit by bit, slowly forgotten. Two cloud people poof out of existence. Riley’s “train of thought” derails, sending Joy, Sadness and others flying. Imaginary entities fall off a cliff and into Riley’s forgetful realm. Joy, Sadness and others fall at times (but don’t seem to get hurt). Joy, Sadness and Riley’s one-time imaginary friend Bing Bong suffer some severe bodily distortions when they try to cross a plain of abstract thought.
CRUDE OR PROFANE LANGUAGE
When things begin to go wrong in Riley’s life, Anger says, “Can I use that curse word I know? It’s a good one!” Indeed, Anger is excited about the prospect of having a wider array of curse words to employ once Riley gets older. But the closest thing to a profanity we actually hear is “heck.”
DRUG AND ALCOHOL CONTENT
OTHER NEGATIVE ELEMENTS
This isn’t exactly negative, but it’s an element that really should be brought up considering the very young age of the film’s target audience. Inside Out has some pretty sad, emotional moments in it. I heard a couple of kids crying during the screening I attended, heartbroken over what they were seeing and experiencing. These sad sections are critical to the story’s development—indeed, sadness lies at the heart of this flick—but it’s something to be aware of, particularly with sensitive kids.
Our age values happiness a great deal. We’re supposed to be happy, jettisoning anything and everything that makes us unhappy: spouses, careers, obligations, our own identities, you name it. If we’re happy, that’s all that matters, we tell ourselves. And if we’re not happy, well, that means something’s wrong.
I’m not trying to flip the whole equation on its head or, say, turn it inside out. There’s nothing evil about happiness, of course. We want to be happy. We want our kids to be happy. We root for Riley to find her happiness again, and we’re with Joy when she pulls out all the stops to make the girl feel a little extra glee.
But by the time Inside Out finishes, we realize that Sadness isn’t the villain. She’s the hero. She allows Riley to grieve over the losses she’s sustained in her big move/life change and, eventually, move on and change for the better.
What a brave message that is—that our goal isn’t to be happy all the time. We’re supposed to be … us. We’re supposed to experience life in its wholeness, even in its sadness. Happy smiles don’t get us all the way there. Running clear of anything that might potentially upset us doesn’t either. Sometimes we need to be sad. And that sadness—indeed, all of those prickly emotions we see in Inside Out—can be catalysts for a much deeper joy down the line.
This review was adapted from Plugged In: the entertainment guide your family needs to make family appropriate decisions through movie reviews, book reviews, TV reviews, and more.