We just got out of this movie, and I have to say, this was one of my favorite animated movies I've ever seen. The levels upon which this movie speaks to human beings, adult and kid alike, is like nothing I've experienced in a movie before. Not only was this entertaining on a simple level, with the colors and characters attracting the kid-mind, but it also was thought provoking in a complex way, appealing to the adults at the same time.
This movie doesn't need a huge explanation, you get the idea of it from the trailers. Basically, our main character is a young girl named Riley with two loving parents. She leads a very happy life in Minnesota, where she has friends, she plays hockey and she still has the innocence and silliness of a child. She is told one day that she will be moving to San Francisco after her father's job takes them there. The story is told from the point of view of her mind, with five emotions driving her life: Joy, Sadness, Fear, Anger, and Disgust. In this movie, we see our minds in a totally different way, with Pixar explaining our days with a literal Train of Thought, a control room that allows the emotions to form memories and how we can recall memories during the day (illustrated hilariously in one scene when the memory removal crew sends up an annoying yet catchy jingle to the control room as a joke, showing us how random things can suddenly pop into our heads for no reason), how our memories are stored as our day is over, how our dreams are formed while we are sleeping, and how our core memories formed in childhood create "islands of personality." The emotion characters see out of Riley's eyes as if they are watching a movie and can control things by pressing buttons on a control panel. Joy is our main emotion and the leader of the group, voiced by the amazing Amy Poehler, who takes over many of the day's events and many of the memories of Riley. Until now, Riley has been incredibly happy and has had many happy memories. It's Joy's job to make sure Riley is happy all the time and to make sure Sadness, voiced by the (ironically) funny Phyllis Smith from The Office, never has control of Riley's mind for too long. Riley has five islands of personality: Family Island, Hockey Island, Friendship Island, Honesty Island, and Goofball Island. Any time Riley is in a circumstance that calls for it, these islands come alive to help her various personality traits come out. I know this sounds complex, but it's pretty astonishing how the brilliant writers at Pixar took something as complex as the mind and made it into a story that makes complete and total sense, enough that kids can understand it and adults can be intrigued by it.
I had a chance to listen to the co-writer/director Pete Doctor on the NPR program Fresh Air the other day and he explained how they had to come up with a believable way in which the mind could be projected onto a big screen. The "memory globes" they use in the movie are very simple. Each time a memory is created, on the screen it is shown in the color of the emotion that was running the mind's control board at the time. Joy is yellow, sadness is blue, fear is purple, anger is red, and disgust is green. Joy and Sadness end up lost in Riley's mind by getting sucked up into the tube the makes it's daily memory deposits into long term memory. We can see that the majority of Riley's memories are yellow. However, when a different emotion touches the globe, it changes the memory permanently. Sadness begins touching Joy's yellow globes, turning happy memories into sad ones. Joy tries to keep Riley happy all the time and tries to prevent Sadness from changing Riley's memories. The two struggle, which lead them to getting deposited in various parts of Riley's mind. Fear, Anger and Disgust are left at the controls, changing Riley from a happy kid to an emotionally unstable kid, all in front of her parents' eyes. We can see glimpses into her mom and dad's minds as well, showing us that each of our minds have the same five emotions guiding us, but not all have the same strong emotion making the main decisions. It's genius the way Pixar did this, truly it is.
This movie spoke to me on so many levels, it's hard to know where to begin. As Joy and Sadness begin their journey back to the control room, we see that Riley is having trouble coping with the changes happening in her life. Moving has been difficult for her, and without sadness and happiness there to balance our her thoughts, she begins to react in ways she never has before. As her thoughts change, the islands that form her personality begin to crumble and break away. For example, in one scene, her dad tries to make her laugh by making monkey noises, something her parents have always done to cheer her up. She is unable to participate back because Joy is gone and with that, Goofball Island is gone. When she steals her mom's credit card to run away, Honesty Island is gone. When her friends back in Minnesota are making new friends and she having a hard time in her new town, Friendship Island is gone. What we are left with is a girl unsure of what emotions she is even feeling and without a sense of who she is. Joy finally realizes along this journey that you can't have happiness without sadness too and allows sadness to take over, with Riley having a much needed bout of sadness to her parents, admitting that she is unhappy and misses her home. Her parents then admit they are having a hard time being in new place too, and they share a family hug. Joy and Sadness join hands and take the controls together, creating a new core memory that is both happy and sad, while also creating a new personality island. From that point forward, all of her memories are a mix of different emotions, illustrating how we begin to grow and change as we get older, and how things begin to get more complex and challenging. At the end, we see that puberty is right around the corner, and are able to see into the minds of a few other people, one being the mind of a young boy who takes a look at Riley for the first time (his mind was total chaos and it was hilarious).
This movie was very symbolic in that way, showing how transitioning from one chapter of life to another is not only confusing and difficult, but it also makes you feel like you don't know who you are. Riley was going from a child to an adolescent, while also dealing with the upheaval of her entire life by a move. One of the other characters that appears wondering through her mind is Bing Bong, her imaginary childhood friend, an elephant/cat/dolphin creature made of cotton candy, that is somewhat lost but still there, waiting for Riley to bring him back to life. He eventually leaves her mind forever, showing us that our mind provides ways for us to deal with our life and surroundings, and when those ways are no longer necessary, they are gone. Our memory removal team goes through the long term memories that are fading into gray, along with those in Riley's mind are memories of learning to play the piano, the names of her favorite princess characters and telephone numbers "because those are all in her phone anyway!" This teams sucks up unnecessary memories to make room for new ones. Another part of this movie I loved is how they showed a young child's imagination by a special part of the mind called "Imagination Station." The emotion character at the controls can call on this place to help a child play. In one scene, Riley is imagining her couch is surrounded by lava and they see how Riley sees, actual lava on the ground as she is gleefully playing above it. Having two girls that played this exact game a lot, ("Quick mom up on the bed, we are surrounded by lava!") I could not help but smile, getting a glimpse into the simplistic nature of my daughter's mind. It brought a tear to my eye, not gonna lie. These memories get dropped eventually into the "nothing area" and just melt away. Like I said, the detail Pixar put into explaining how our mind works is genius and absolutely unique and creative.
What I see this movie doing is opening people's minds to how other people feel. You can now visually see your mind working. Kids can identify feelings from this movie in a way nothing before has allowed them to do. You can say to a child that has seen this movie, "It sounds like anger is taking over the controls today, maybe we can give the controls back to joy for a while?" and they will actually know exactly what you mean by it. It allows people to truly understand that all people have exactly the same emotions inside them, it just depends in each person's mind what emotion is the strongest leader. We also understand that all of the emotions are important for different reasons, for example, you don't want to be an angry person, but when Riley plays hockey, she needs anger to help her play the game her best. And you can't be happy all of the time, sometimes you need to be sad, and that's OK.
This is a movie we will absolutely have in our DVD library and I can't wait to see it again. I am sure there are many details I missed and would love to watch for the second time around. See this movie, even if you don't have kids, it's worth it!!