Well, I really wanted to like it. I’m sorry—I feel like a spoilsport, but… I just didn’t. Nor did I hate it, but it actually put me in a pretty down mood for a while because… I was expecting too much? I was bummed that a Pixar movie would be… so lame? So small? So poor in tackling the huge project it set for itself, that is, mapping the human mind? Anyway, let’s get into it.
So we have this girl Riley. We meet her emotions and get exposition about how her mind works… in that she is ruled by five emotions, joy, sadness, anger, disgust and fear. They live in a control room inside her brain, and her experiences get turned into memories, that look like little marbles, that mostly get stored away at the end of the day, but some of them stay as “core memories.” There are also “islands” of important values like family, goofiness, sports, etc.
The whole place is mainly overseen by Joy, voiced by Amy Poehler, as an annoying, bossy, overbearing, smug and supercilious uber-chipper camper. She wants her hands all over everything, and she thinks she’s right, because everything should be happy. The other main character is Sadness, voiced by Phyllis Smith, who is overweight [???] and blue. The other emotions get short shrift, and are seen, throughout, as less important. Sadness is portrayed as a bit, I don’t know, disturbed? She keeps touching memories when she knows she shouldn’t, which causes them to be tinged with sadness [and a blue cast coming over their yellow color]. At a certain point, one of the effective touches, Joy draws a chalk circle around Sadness and tells her to stay in it. One of Joy’s annoying tendencies is to pretend that making others act as she wants is a “fun game” for them. But Sadness just keeps, almost compulsively, touching everything.
Riley and her parents move to San Francisco, where the movie engages in the fantasy that they can live in that most expensive of cities on only Dad’s non-income starting a business. It’s a little like the fantasy in Finding Nemo that the coral reefs of Australia are just as vibrant as ever! But we’re remaining childlike and open to wonder, okay? Got it? Anyway, she has to manage a lot of emotions what with a new house and new school and her Dad always on the phone. Through some, umm, bullshit, Joy and Sadness get thrown out to the outer reaches of her mind, out by the islands, separated from the control tower by a huge, rather arbitrary, gulf. Anyway, without access to Joy or Sadness, Riley is thrown into an emotional tailspin.
First, Riley’s dad tries to cheer her up by being goofiness, and suddenly—there goes goofiness island, destroyed in a sort-of earthquake and falling into ruin in the abyss. This was the first moment of metaphor dissonance for me—oh, really, that’s all it takes for one of these islands to fall into ruin? Not very stable in the first place, was it? Soon Riley is annoyed that her friend from home made a new friend, and that’s it—say goodbye to friendship island. Again, that’s ALL it takes? No more friendship, because of this one skirmish? The two rogue emotions are stuck in this big maze piled seemingly a hundred feet high with memories. They are trying to get back to the control tower, which means venturing into the maze.
There they meet Bing Bong, Riley’s imaginary childhood friend, who is sort of an elephant-clown, and is also trying to get back to her. Blah, blah, at a certain point he starts crying, and won’t show them the way, and this is when Sadness sympathizes with him, and makes him feel better enough to show them the way to the train of thought, which will take them back. This requires them to go through “abstract thought,” in which they turn first into cubist Picasso-people, then two-dimensional shards, etc. This is obviously meant to be a wacky highlight, but it couldn’t raise a smile from me. They are next in dream production, which of course is styled after a Hollywood studio. Blah, blah, soon they’re out.
SPOILERS > > >
Soon Riley is so upset that she is going to run away, and she steals money from mom’s purse, causing truth island to fall, hitting the train of thought and destroying it. Again, this is all supposed to be metaphor, but then: what is the train crash? After this comes a moment where Joy grabs at a chance to get back to control, making to LEAVE Sadness there in the outlands, saying “I’m sorry, but Riley needs to be happy!” Wow, this Joy is kind of a rhymes-with-bunt. But Joy ends up falling down into the chasm of discarded memories, which, for some reason, is centrally-located, with the control tower rising out of the center of it. There she sees an important happy memory, in which her parents and hockey team celebrate Riley, and realizes that Riley was sad just before, and in fact it was her sadness that drew the people to comfort her, creating the happiness. So here’s the big lesson: we need sadness just as much as happiness.
Joy escapes from the chasm with the help of Bing Bong, who sacrifices himself when he realizes that he must fade with time—which I think was supposed to have some emotional heft, but I couldn’t care about—and there’s some Pixar-esque madcap climactic over-action at the end, leaving Joy and Sadness hanging from a ledge. But it’s a metaphorical edge, see. Anyway, they get back in, Riley gets off the bus and returns home, and we have a big emotional scene which will indeed have you weeping in your chair. After that, we see memory marbles that are more than one color—i.e. they are more emotionally complex—and the emotions get a bigger control panel with which to deal with her more nuanced emotions.
< < < SPOILERS END
I think my main problem with this movie is that, since the entire thing is supposed to be a huge metaphor, it really bugged me when elements were inconsistent with that metaphor. Like the train crash? What is that supposed to be? Hanging from a ledge? What is that, in terms of brain function? And since it’s all supposed to be a metaphor, half my mind was always focused on how everything was supposed to fit that metaphor, and whether it worked or not. In past Pixar movies, this kind of fanciful conceit—toys have lives, etc.—worked and everything seemed clever, but here, I just didn’t buy it, and things I can tell were supposed to be highlights, like abstract thought and dream production, just fell flat. So yes, I got very caught up in whether everything strictly fit the metaphor, and you could very well argue that I need to just take a chill pill and relax, rather then be such a stickler about it.
You could also argue that making it all a metaphor creates a high demand for it all to fit consistently, which puts an undue focus on metaphor-making, thus short-shrifting other aspects we could have explored, like more character development with the emotions, a more nuanced real-world plot for Riley to experience, more time with her parents, and more attention to the idea that this entire episode is leading to a development toward more complex, mature emotional responses. Because it’s true, all the wacky inter-brain shenanigans does take away valuable time from developing everything else, which the movie could have benefitted greatly from. At the same time, it occurs to me that this could be the first time many young viewers will encounter a metaphor.
What it reminds me most of is the book The Phantom Tollbooth—which please, please tell me you read as a child—in which its young protagonist also goes on a journey into his mind, with metaphoric things made real, like getting lost in the doldrums or jumping to conclusions. Only there, each new thing was absolutely delightful—and I will admit that I haven’t read it since I was ten, ha ha—but the metaphors were simplistic, and thus worked, and I just didn’t feel it here. Maybe I would if I was ten. But you know that moment in many Pixar movies where they get a little weird or have something really shockingly creative that really takes you off guard? I did’t have it here. I suspect that the abstract thought and dream production parts were supposed to do that, but didn’t.
Anyway, the good thing about it, which I wish was brought more forward so that it would be understood as a main theme, is that we’re witnessing a transition from simple, childhood emotions into more complex, mature emotions. And even saying that, I realize that the movie paints itself into a corner a bit by having its main characters be, by necessity, ONE emotion. Therefore they are hamstring in their development, and it just comes off as incomprehensible when we see Joy crying. So it's all a bit overstuffed with trying to work the metaphor in a way that crowds out space for developing other, necessary things, while at the same time all the service of the metaphor raises unachievable expectations for everything to seamlessly fit right in. And for me, it just didn’t work well enough, and the disappointment bummed me out for the rest of the night.
There are certainly worse things you could do.