The bittersweet and inevitable farewell to childhood has been a prominent theme in studio Pixar’s work for decades. Most notably, the Toy Story trilogy, Monsters Inc. and Finding Nemo. Inside Out elevates this theme, tackling it in the studio’s most mature way yet. This sparkling animated feature sets a new bar not only for the studio, but for inventive and creative originality expressed through the medium of film. Inside Out is Pixar’s ultimate manifesto on that painful bridge we all must cross from child to adult.
Pixar is known for tugging on our heartstrings, the most tender spots in life’s journey that can immediately make us weep. (The first 10 minutes of Up. That’s all you need to say, really.) One of those important spots? Growing up.
Monster’s Inc. tackles this through the relationship of the adorable giggly Boo and her John Goodman quasi-yeti Sully, who she affectionately calls “Kitty”. Boo eventually reaches a point where she must say goodbye to her fuzzy friend. Boo is sad that her playmate is leaving, but she doesn’t fully grasp the finality of this farewell. But monsters Sully and Mike do. “Go ahead. Go grow up.” Mike tells Boo as he ushers her to the door. Their playtime is over. Eventually Boo will grow older and there will be no more Kitty or monsters in the closet. The melancholy of their goodbye is negated in the end though, when Mike rebuilds Boo’s door. Sully enters, off-screen we hear Boo recognize her Kitty. While their whimsical trysts may be over, at least Sully can still visit.
Finding Nemo deals with that tough first leap, when children have that itch to move on from their ‘baby’ pastimes and habits to go out on their own.This is tough for our protagonist, Marlin. Marlin is an overanxious helicopter parent, constantly fretting and overprotective over his son. (So much so that he even wants Nemo to play in the baby playground).
But Marlin behaves this way because he is still scarred from the death of his wife and other children. He wants to shelter and keep Nemo out of harm’s way for as long as possible. After the long journey of finding Nemo is over, Marlin learns to accept that painful transition for parents, the time that comes to let your child go experience the world without you there to hold their hand (or fin). “Go have an adventure!” Marlin yells at Nemo before he goes off to school. “Goodbye son.” He softly whispers.
The most congruent to Inside Out’s themes lies in the Toy Story trilogy. Likely the most painful and outright stab in the heart that confronts adolescence’s transition. When She Loved Me. Cue. the. tears. All I need to hear is the first bars of that song and I’m already crying. Adults and teenagers alike know very well why this scene hurts so much. We recall how easily we abandoned some of our toys as children. The doll we once lovingly toted around everywhere now sits untouched high on a shelf.
(Warning: watch at your own risk)
Toy Story 3 was nostalgic for many audiences, released 15 years after the original. For many audience members, they were children at the time of the original’s release and were now about to go to college. The ending elegantly touched that nerve that was ever so raw. Andy, now a young man ready to head off to college, passes the torch by giving a young girl named Bonnie his once beloved playmates. Andy has the recollection of how much he loved them, and though he is reluctant to give away his favorite toy Woody, he knows that, and so do the toys, that his wonder years with them are over.
Pixar repeatedly paints an eloquent picture of growing up, but Inside Out is the only time it is done differently. In past Pixar films, the child matures while our main characters are on the sidelines observing them. Sully and Mike mourn for their goodbye to Boo. Marlin feels bittersweet now that Nemo can now swim in his own current. Woody, Buzz, and the toys are saddened in their farewell to their beloved friend, but knowing in that it is time to move on. The passing time with Jessie’s owner is seen through her eyes. We feel the pain of these characters, acknowledge it and recognize it in ourselves.
Inside Out turns the subtext seen again and again in Pixar’s previous films into the actual text of the film. Pixar continues to confront how much a childhood ending hurts, but this time as it is actually ending. We saw in Toy Story‘s Andy how he was nostalgic about his past and giving his childhood icons, and the era itself, away. But he reflects on this as a young man that has already crossed the bridge to adulthood. For Riley, that far away childhood is right here and now, and it is slowly slipping out of her fingers. Inside Out shows how that nostalgia Andy experienced is born. Out of sadness and joy.
The one solvent in our pain for our characters’ ruptured relationships is that we get to see them continue living in their world, either with lessons learned or with new owners. This is completely severed in Inside Out, and makes for a much more heartbreaking and poignant revelation.
(Major spoilers if you wish to avoid)
Bing Bong is a “pink cotton candy nougat-filled elephant-cat hybrid” that cries candy. He is Riley’s old imaginary friend. We see flashback scenes of her interacting with the lovable creature, playing music, running around, and their favorite pastime of riding in a pretend rocket. When Bing Bong and Joy get trapped in a dark abyss, Bing Bong sacrifices himself on the rocket ride to the top so that Joy can escape, survive, and help Riley. The moral of this absolutely heartbreaking moment? To move forward as healthy adults, we must set aside some childish things. Bing Bong serves as a mashup of Jessie, Woody, Buzz Lightyear, and Sully from Monster’s Inc., who all demonstrated that beloved childhood playthings eventually lose an active place in our hearts. But for Bing Bong, which sets Inside Out apart, there is no going back. Once Bing Bong is in the abyss, he will fade from Riley’s memory forever. And while it is heartbreaking, adults know full and well just how true this is.
The moral of Inside Out‘s story is what Joy must learn. Throughout the film Joy is unhappy with Sadness for touching Riley’s memory and imprinting sadness on them. Joy stubbornly wants nothing for Riley except happiness, which she has mainly had for the entirety of her 11 years on Earth. For much of our childhoods, (those fortunate to grow up with happy ones) this is very true. Happiness and joy really is our dictator. Of course there are bad days for children, but none that rip through you as much as when you’re older.
After Riley moves she grows to miss her home for much of what is stood for, the comfort and security of being little. Soon she realizes that there is no going back and this hurts. In the climatic scene, Riley opens up and tells the truth about her sadness after moving. She and her parents share an emotional hug. Riley’s core memories become tinged with both sadness and joy, for now those memories are not in the distant past. The way Joy watches these memories up on a projector-like screen evokes how we watch childhood movies of days past. Riley can reflect on these times with happiness, but now that she is growing older and they become farther away, she reflects on them with sadness as well. We see Riley playing with her family and friends as a toddler and young child. Those times are bittersweet, for you miss them and are grateful that you had them. Sadness and joy co-exist.
Growing up is getting further away from those times where you could play all day, so carefree and simple. Riley is confronted with this for the first time, and we follow that journey ever so closely. Closer than Pixar ever has before. Pixar no longer hides behind other characters, they dive right into the person experiencing this journey. This makes for an exquiste and aching portrait of that journey that goes where no Pixar film has gone before. While the themes of Toy Story, Monsters Inc. and Finding Nemo are resonant for those older, Inside Out hits them home at the highest level. But Inside Out is still so fun that watching it makes you feel like a child again. It makes it all the more poignant for the sheer beauty in how it expresses the longing for those simple times, as well as the reflection on the exquisite pain of growing up.