"Ever wonder what goes inside your head?" is the question the movie asks and answers. The movie opens with a newborn baby, Riley, crying - and then takes us immediately inside her head, where we are introduced to Joy - Riley's first emotion. It's a lovely and optimistic (and very Disney) thought, that happiness is the first feeling a human being experiences. But the golden, brightly-dressed and sparkly-haired Joy is not alone, for she is quickly followed by the blue, plump and somber Sadness, the purple, lanky, jumpy Fear, the red, stout and thick-browed Anger, and the green, sassy and stylish Disgust.
(Yes, they left out Surprise - Fear seemed to embody her role, though).
This ensemble directs Riley's internal narrative from "HQ," the headquarters of her feelings (the limbic system?). True to Pixar and Disney, the whole film is fabulously imaginative - inside Riley's head, we watch an actual "train" of thought go speeding by, see how she is who she is because of her "islands of personality," and even understand how the most ridiculous songs get stuck in her head (they get sent up to HQ by the "Forgetters"). Riley's memories are captured in large, glowing marbles - most of which take on Joy's golden-hue - and the major ones become "core memories" that are safely stored away to form the bedrock of her personality.
"I'm not really sure what Sadness does," Joy remarks at the beginning of the movie. Indeed, Joy takes the steering wheel throughout Riley's childhood. Whenever a sad moment threatens to appear, it is always Joy who saves the day, while Sadness is ushered to a side. It is only when Sadness and Joy are accidentally ejected from HQ that Joy begins to realize the importance of a tear, of a quiet moment, of sorrow.
Throughout the film, Joy always tries to help Sadness understand happiness ("we'll work on this when we get back to HQ," she says). However, it is Joy who needs to understand the power of sadness the most. When Riley's imaginary friend Bing Bong is upset, it isn't Joy's jokes that cheer him up, but rather Sadness's empathy that helps him pick himself up again. When Joy and Sadness are trying to wake up Riley, it isn't a bundle of laughs that jolts her awake, but Fear. You need sadness in your life - it is catharsis, relief, and - as one of Riley's core memories prove - a door to happiness.
There is so much that this film gets right about emotions and the human brain. For starters, what Sadness says is spot on: "Crying helps me slow down and obsess over the weight of life's problems." On the train, Joy rightly remarks, "All these facts and opinions look the same. I can't tell them apart."
Moreover, when we zoom into the parents' heads, we see that their emotions all seem to get along. For example, the father's "Joy" is all for "putting the foot down," something that is Anger's job. Inside mom's head, Sadness sits at the centre, although all emotions take part in decision-making. And finally, once Riley turns twelve, her HQ "upgrades" - her "emotional panel" expands so that all emotions have a say in what dials to turn. Her feelings become more complex, Anger now has access to all the swear words he likes, and there is a big "Puberty" button that will be pressed sooner or later.
This is a film that will make you laugh and cry. Joy using a tower of Riley's imaginative boyfriends to get back to HQ is hilarious, as is what goes on inside the parents' heads ("Signal the husband!") And the most poignant moment of the film is undoubtedly Bing Bong's sacrifice, for this episode carries with it the sad truth that we do forget about parts of our childhood in order to grow up.
There are going to be times in your life when Joy just isn't there (hopefully not lost in the maze of your long-term memory or trapped in your subconsciousness). Sometimes, that's just what you'll need - yet at the same time, Joy might be there all along, just on the others side of your marble or around the corner. Ah, emotions. They are complex, extensively researched and part of our mental network since day one. No matter what, it is always better to feel something - than nothing at all.
Now I need to RAVE about Lava. My heart melted. It is most lava-ly short I've ever, ever seen. I'd forgotten that mini animations precede every animated movie (I definitely had an "am I in the right room moment," though). I've already played the song on my uke and listened to it endlessly on Youtube. How precious and warm. Adorable, visually gorgeous, funny, brilliantly imaginative. Best pun ever. I didn't know I could feel so much empathy for an animated volcano. It's the perfect lullaby and lover's duet. I lava that short with all my heart.