The genre of animation has a storytelling capability that is far more flexible than live-action. Besides the fact that there is more creative control and fewer production conundrums to endure, the less delicate and confronting nature of animation enables it to tactfully approach difficult topics. No film exploits the ductile storytelling ability of animation quite like Inside Out does.
Inside Out follows a protagonist named, Joy—who represents the emotion of the same name. Joy along with Anger, Sadness, Fear, and Disgust work together in emotional headquarters to keep 11-year-old Riley safe and happy. Each of the character designs are meant to symbolize their given emotion; Joy is a glowing ray of sunshine, with a blue pixie cut, Sadness is blue, chubby, and wears glasses, Anger is stocky, red, and masculine, Fear is lanky, squeamish, and erratic, and Disgust is sassy, well-dressed, and green. The very idea of characterizing and physicalizing emotions is something that only animation can do because it is something entirely up to one’s imagination.
The status quo at the onset of the story is that Riley is a happy girl and Joy’s need is to keep her that way. However, when Riley’s family is forced to move from Minnesota to San Francisco, the status quo is dismantled. Much to Joy’s dismay, pesky Sadness begins affecting Riley more than Joy is used to.
Joy is self-centered and pretentious—she holds herself above Riley’s other emotions. When she attempts to remove Sadness’s contributions from the control center, she finds herself lost in Riley’s mindscape with all of her core memories (the memories that are essential to Riley’s personality) and Sadness as her only companion. Without Joy and her memories, Riley cannot be happy, so Joy must journey her way back to the control center. Along the way, Joy learns that Sadness is just as paramount to Riley’s happiness as she is.
Despite the fact that Joy’s character arc is very similar to that of a live-action character, the way she is physicalized far surpasses the limits that live-action imposes. She is entirely stylized. Because emotions don’t have known physical forms, artists were able to create her with complete autonomy and imagination; Her figure is light-footed and fluid in her movements, she glows, and her eyes cover 80% of her circular face.
The pivotal scene in Inside Out, is when Joy finds herself in the memory dump with Bing Bong—Riley’s nearly forgotten imaginary friend. Bing Bong never existed in the real world, but existed solely in Riley’s imagination; his body is made of cotton candy, his head resembles that of an elephant, he cries tears of candy, and he’s part-dolphin.
The dump is filled with millions of memories that are compressed into snow globe-like figurines. Each memory is colored by the main emotion associated with it. Joy is nearly buried beneath the memories until, sparkling amongst the mounds of faded memories, Joy sees the core memory that she threw away that got her lost in the first place—the one she thought was ruined because it was touched by Sadness. She watches the memory and realizes that the reason it brings Riley so much joy is because her family and friends banded together to get rid of her sadness. She says, “they came to help because of Sadness.” This moment is heightened because she is referring both to the importance of the emotion, sadness, and her colleague, Sadness, who she has consistently undervalued and disrespected.
Bing Bong helps Joy escape the depths of her own despair and realizes his own fate—to be forgotten. He sacrifices himself to ensure that Riley could once again be happy. In the most tear-jerking way possible, Bing Bong reminds older audiences of the childlike wonder that growing older forces us to forget. It is emotionally impactful in both a literal and symbolic sense.
Inside Out is set in two different worlds, Riley’s physical, external world and her internal world of emotions. The external world is designed after our world, but the internal world is a more creative depiction; the filmmakers use their knowledge of psychology to reduce extremely complex concepts into a colorful and inventive story that can be grasped by children. Psychology is neither a perfect nor concrete science; there are innumerous unknowns and tons factors that, in the physical world, cannot yet be grasped. Therefore, a story that attempts to boil down the convolutions of the mind is exploiting animation’s freedom from physical restraints by default.
Pixar tends to focus their stories on objects, ideas, and non-human subjects. While allowing them to create more creative stories, there is also a strategic reason behind it as well; human bodies and movements look stiff and robotic in computer animation, so it makes sense to minimize scenes with human characters (Kemper, 2015). Animation unlocks a creative freedom for artists to stimulate life that is not tethered to what is physically possible. Inside Out is a deeply human story that relies less on its human characters and more on the metaphysical world of the human emotions themselves. Though Riley’s emotions are an extension of Riley herself, the emotions each have their own stories. Riley’s relationships to the outer world are the B-story to her internal turmoil.
Inside Out is a story about empathy—literally. Docter came up with the idea for the film when his daughter, who was always oozing joy, turned eleven and changed her tune. He wondered, “what happened to my joyful girl?” Animation allowed Docter to come up with an answer to that question in a way that live-action never could.