This is Pixar, so it’s got that going for it. And it is a funny movie. It’s also touching enough at the end. Absolutely worth your time all in all, but I didn’t feel it was quite up there with the very best of Pixar. It was a question of tone for me.
And yeah, this isn’t exactly science fiction, but the whimsical technology inside the mind on display is close enough. For those of you who’ve been in a cave the last few months, this is the story of 11-year-old Riley Anderson and the primal emotions governing her behavior: joy, sadness, anger, fear and disgust. So yes, it’s “Herman’s Head” with better effects and writing.
The catalyst for this movie is the Andersons move from Minnesota to San Francisco, a traumatic change for Riley. Her emotions handle it badly, with Joy and Sadness ultimately being sucked back into Long-Term Memory by accident while clutching Riley’s precious core memories. Without those touchstones of identity, Riley begins to change. The five islands forming her personality—Family, Friendship, Hockey, Honesty, and Goofball—start to break down in sequence as Joy and Sadness desperately try to find their way back to Headquarters. Said break down is unfortunately accelerated by the hapless efforts of Fear, Anger and Disgust to compensate.
Hmm. Fear, anger and disgust working together aren’t an optimal problem solving mix? Who’d have guessed?
There’s your movie. The basic idea is sound, and there are some very touching moments. Two stood out for me. The first is when Bing Bong, Riley’s imaginary childhood friend who hasn’t been called upon in a while now, sacrifices himself to the inevitable memory dump to save Joy. He’s still devoted to the little girl who forgot him. The second is Joy’s climactic realization that they need Sadness to make Riley whole. It’s only in letting sadness taint Riley’s precious memories of joy in Minnesota that she’s able to grow beyond them and find new joy. That’s nostalgia in all its bittersweet glory. As C. S. Lewis noted, the pain now is part of the happiness then.
So what’s this tonal issue I had? To me, Riley’s breakdown is too stark. The story actually covers only her first two or three days in San Francisco. I realize the core memory displacement is a significant issue, but still… The total breakdown of all five islands in such a short time creates an almost Apocalyptic atmosphere where Riley seems to have genuine psychological problems. She’s a loving, happy girl who turns on a dime into stealing her mother’s credit card in order to ride a midnight bus two steps left of Purgatory back to Minnesota.
I know we need drama to give Joy and Sadness’s quest urgency, but that much angst that quick felt forced. I think they either needed to stretch the collapse out over a longer period of time or use a softer approach. I would have preferred the latter. An eleven year-old-girl doesn’t need to be descending into some sociopathic Hades in order to make her disappointments, sorrows and confusion compelling.
Still, it is a funny movie in lots of places. And the ending is good. The above is just my personal reaction.