Some movies are like memories - frozen moments in time that define a character and the fictional world around her. Some are like ideas - lines of reasoning aimed at making sense of the world as it presents itself.
Inside Out is both and neither at the same time. It is a movie about how ideas, the tools we use to try to navigate the trials of life, affect our memories, and how our view of our memories affects our ideas about how to live.
Few children truly live the life of Riley, but most think they do until age ten or so, at least according to our cultural mythology. At the beginning of Inside Out we meet our Riley at the age of eleven and she’s just endured a setback that threatens to overwhelm her sunny disposition with sadness.
If it stopped there it would be a standard schmaltzy children’s movie (“Don’t say the D-Word!” - managing editor Fake Bill Simmons) but Pixar went above and beyond in this one, sacrificing some narrative zip for some real thematic breadth. The problem with Riley’s sadness isn’t how it makes her feel, it’s how it affects what she might do. For the parents in the audience at least, the movie takes on its momentum at the instant we realize that Riley’s choices in response to her deteriorating emotional situation might really be limiting what she might be able to accomplish in her life. We are in danger of losing her.
Amidst all this is a serious meditation on the finality of forgetting - the knowledge that when a little girl forgets a memory that bit of time is irreversibly discarded, used up. And we can rewind the movie as many times as we want but that yawning pit of forgetting is always there, disintegrating everything into dust as black as ink.
Yet rarely has a movie ever seemed so effortlessly positive about the state of the human condition. Everyone in this movie suffers, and none of it is meaningless. The terrifying trials the animated children of our childhood memories endured are the blueprints for houses we live in today, where we stuff coca-cola and twizzlers into our backpacks before taking our children to movies to learn important lessons about honesty.
Pixar has put the entire universe into the mind of a depressed preteen girl and made the universe seem all the more limitless for it. A best picture nomination seems assured. Bravo.