I was not expecting much with this as the premise (personalized emotions inside a little girl’s head) seemed old and used to me (it’s just like the old Herman’s Head TV show), but once again Pixar surprises.
The key for me is that there’s a lot more innovative stuff than just talking emotions. The world inside the girl’s head is vast and well-done, with clear rules of its own. For instance, each emotion (Joy, Sadness, Anger, Fear, and Disgust) having their own color (yellow, blue, red, purple, green). There are “memory balls” — colored spheres that contain a video of key memories — that roll into as they are created, with the most special ones becoming “core” memories that define the girl’s personality. The spheres take on the color associated with that memory (happy ones are yellow, sad ones are blue, etc.). There are different places in the brain where the balls are stored (long-term, short-term, core, etc.), while less important memories are thrown away for good.
There are wonderful places inside this internal world, such as Imagination Land, and fun things like the “train of thought” which runs around rather randomly.
But all of this would be pointless without a good story, and here the writers have done a great job of keeping the outer story simple. Riley, the little girl, has moved with her family from Minnesota (where she played ice hockey all the time) to San Francisco. She’s lost all her friends, her house, her hockey, and is stuck in a new school. Her dad’s over-busy with work and stress, and their moving truck is stuck in Texas, so she doesn’t even have her things.
As these things make her sad, we see panic inside her head, where Joy, who’s usually in charge and always keeps Riley happy, is struggling to contain Sadness, who seemed to bumble everything and is turning everything blue. Then when Joy and Sadness get separated from Headquarters, that leaves Anger, Fear, and Disgust running the ship (er, Riley), with hilarious and predictably bad results. As Joy and Sadness wander around in the brain trying to get back to control things, Joy has to learn that there’s a place for Sadness, who she thought was a useless emotion. It’s a pretty cool concept as both Riley (outside world) and Joy (inside world) have to learn new lessons.
There are aspects of the film that weren’t perfect. The resolution is too easy-peasy (and we don’t get to see how Riley actually adapts and makes new friends in San Francisco, we only see that she does).
The film also violates one of my biggest pet peeves, which is showing memories from the camera point-of-view. (When you remember something, say a favorite birthday party from your childhood, do you see yourself in the video playback in your head? Of course not: you remember what you saw, not what other people saw.) But this film repeatedly shows memories of Riley ice skating and such — views she wouldn’t know. I do realize there’s a practical element to deciding to do it this way: if all we see is Riley’s viewpoint as she spinning around on ice, it’s hard for us to tell what’s going on, that’s she skating or whatever, but still. The film does open with her viewpoint, seeing her parents for the first time, etc., so it does mix both viewpoints.
Still, this is a minor gripe. Overall, the film’s more original than it sounds, has an interesting world, and a solid story, and is worth your time.
I will add that though it’s not related directly to this film, I was seriously disappointed with the opening short, Lava. Usually Pixar’s shorts are one of my favorite things about their films (and sometimes I like them better than the main feature). But this one was shockingly lame.
The premise is neat — a humanized volcano island in the ocean seeking love — but the execution is abysmal. The main volcano looks great, like a rock but with eyes and a mouth. But his love interest looks like a woman and only vaguely volcanoish. Top all that with an over-long talky “song” that narrates exactly what we’re seeing onscreen, and you have a tedious short that feels like it’s five-minutes too long. The music is weak, and the art is worse. I’m shocked this made it off the rough draft table, let alone got approved to precede a major film. Very strange.