Synopsis: 11 year old Riley is a girl with a peaceful little life, and she’s defined by her core emotions of Sadness, Anger, Disgust and Fear, though mostly Joy. However when she has to move to a new city, her life starts to hit some roadblocks and her emotions of Joy and Sadness end up getting separated from the center of her brain alongside the core memories that make up Riley’s personality. Now Joy and Sadness must make their way back to the center of Riley’s life and restore her personality before her life completely falls apart.
So it’s no secret that Pixar’s gone through something of a rough patch for the last few years. A lot of their recent films have lost the magic that made the studio so legendary with Brave being fairly generic, Monster’s University mostly passable (though I do have something of a fondness for it) and of course Cars sequels/spinoffs up the wazoo. Needless to say the expectations surrounding this film were fairly low, but not only has it beaten them to prove itself as the best thing they’ve done in years, it’s also one of their greatest works yet.
The film both figuratively and literally takes us inside the mind of an 11-year old girl named Riley. Her life has been a fairly happy one, and one mostly defined by the emotion of Joy, who serves as the movie’s protagonist. Alongside the other core emotions of Anger, Disgust, Fear and of course Sadness, she helps in keeping Riley’s personality on track, literally going out of her way to keep sadness to a minimum by trying to keep said emotion out of her life as much as possible. After all, no one wants to be sad right?
However things in Riley’s life take an unexpected turn when she moves from her home in Minnesota to San Francisco and has to try and adjust. While the other emotions all appropriately have a negative reaction to the situation, Joy still believes she can put a brighter spin on things and tries to keep a positive outlook. It doesn’t take long for things to get worse and Joy and Sadness end up getting accidentally launched out of the core of Riley’s mind alongside the core memories that make up who she is.
As the two attempt to make the journey back alongside Riley’s old imaginary friend, in order to restore those key memories, things in Riley’s life gradually begin to fall apart piece by piece as the key parts of her life up till now become unsustainable. To make matters worse in the absence of Joy who’s been the defining emotion of Riley’s life up until now, the others keep making worse and worse decisions for her until they eventually decide that she should run away from home since that’s where all her happy memories lied and should be the best way to restore them. During their journey, Joy and Sadness begin to slowly bond with each other, and Joy starts to think that maybe sadness isn’t such a bad emotion after all, but as the situation worsens she abandons her since she still feels joy is all Riley really needs in her life.
When things get to their lowest point though, it’s at that moment she takes the time to realize that Sadness is indeed a necessary emotion and that it has it’s importance in Riley’s life too. Joy goes back to reunite with her and it all leads into the moment that defines the film’s core message. To resolve the whole situation, rather than Joy being what convinces Riley not to go through with running away it ends up Sadness because it’s something she’ll ultimately come to regret. This leads to Riley reconciling with her parents in an emotional breakdown, and a moment that’s defined as equally sad and happy in Riley’s memories becoming a new core memory that helps to define who she is.
At it’s core, the film understands that we aren’t just defined by our happy experiences in life. We experience sadness, frustration, disgust and various other emotions as we encounter situations throughout life. However all of these emotions define who we are and it’s important to recognize the sad times in life just as often as the happy ones because they’re what ultimately make us stronger. The ending is equally strong in that respect as while it ends on a somewhat upbeat note, it also suggests Riley will have another experience just like that one before too long because well…that’s life and you never really stop encountering those kinds of problems. It’s what you take away from the experiences that really matter.
The film’s thematic merits are strong but it also works really well as a solid piece of entertainment. The world of Riley’s mind is fun and imaginative, making it pretty neat to explore as Joy and Sadness traverse it’s various parts. In addition the movie’s humor hits just the right cord of silly enough to make kids laugh, while not overtly dumb enough to turn off adults, and a lot of the jokes are really clever and witty. Also have to give a small thumbs up for the film NOT featuring an antagonist, in an extremely rare feat for a kids’ movie. It briefly tempts it as the imaginary friend initially seems like he could be one, but the movie decides to trust that Riley’s situation is conflict enough on it’s own, and it makes the film much more close to home and personal. This movie has all the makings of a modern classic and is definitely a strong contender for one of the best, if not the best film(s) of the year. Welcome back Pixar, now please don’t go away again.