Why Inside Out is Pixar’s Best Written Film (Analysis)

In Inside Out, Pixar gets mature about growing up / The Dissolve

Currently Listening to: Howl Howl Gaff Gaff by Shout Out Louds


Pixar is one of the most consistent movie studios in the film industry. Hell, they pretty much ruled the entirety of the 2000’s. With them being constantly recognized as huge game changers and pioneers in CGI animated film development and getting massive acclaim year after year. Nearly every year that decade at the Academy Awards they would snag the trophy for best animated film (except Monsters Inc. and Cars) as well as get nominated for best original screenplay (again, besides Monsters Inc. and Cars). It’s no secret that in this past decade the films Pixar has put out have been lacking the luster and appeal that the ones in the 2000’s had. Where every film they dropped in the 2000’s got nominated for best animated film, some of them weren’t even on the ballot in the 2010’s. Monsters University, Cars 2 & 3, Finding Dory, and The Good Dinosaur all were left in the dust and sulked in the shadows of superior films their respective years.

However, there were two films in the 2010’s that Pixar put out that received both the best animated feature nods AND the screenplay nomination. Those films being Toy Story 3 (adapted screenplay) and Inside Out. While Toy Story 3 is great, I believe that Inside Out is not only Pixar’s best written film, but also one of the best written movies period.

When most people think of the most intricate, content dense films most might say films like Inception, Citizen Kane, Memento, or even 12 Angry Men. Inside Out stands among the greats and I plan to explain why.

Initial Reaction

It was 2015, I was about to enter my junior year of high school and was having probably one of the weirdest summers of my life. There was a lot of activity that was going on around me with friends and people I was close with that kind of crumbled out of nowhere, leaving me to feel fairly empty at the end of August. So instead of focusing on the world that was so obviously disintegrating around me I would distract myself by watching movies. Whether I was coming back from school, going with my family, or even if I was just bored I would just pop on a random movie that looked somewhat interesting or had a good Rotten Tomatoes rating and would indulge myself for hours on end.

2015 was also the year that I started keeping track of all the films I saw throughout the year. By the time that the year had ended I had seen 172 movies I had never seen before. To this day I have no clue how I did that. That’s like a movie a day for almost half of the year. Since then I probably average 40 if I’m lucky, not counting ones I have already seen before.

Out of those 172 films though there was only one of them that I saw in theaters three times and that was Inside Out (not Pitch Perfect 2, which I regret watching one time). The saving grace of that summer was the trips that I had to the movie theaters. That was the way I saw my friends half the time that summer too. Probably shouldn’t have biked there, so if my parents are reading this entry… I apologize but at least I am still alive. The local theater was what you think of when you think of the word ghetto. Think of those theaters you see in cartoons and in TV where you stick to the seats trying to stand up to use the restroom, kids running amok the whole time (kind of like a child abduction roulette, take your pick and the parents wouldn’t notice), shit smeared bathroom stall doors, and as one person on Google Reviews described the staff “the scum of the city”.

Anyhow, I got dropped off by my (we’ll just call them friend)’s parents and we used both of our chore money to get admission to the newest Pixar movie. I had no clue what to expect, the film that came out before this one was Monsters University and to this day I still despise that movie, like how do you ruin Monsters Inc? The trailer looked promising though so whatever I’ll bite. I left the theater astonished. I had never seen a movie like this in my life, let alone an animated one. To this day it is still one of the best theater experiences of my life too. Everyone was very invested in the story, even the kids that were running around at first sat down on the faux velvet staircases to watch. That being said, I don’t think there was a dry eye in that screening room either. I’ve never seen so many kids collectively cry at a movie before other than when I saw Avatar with my dad. I think they were just scared though.

I went home immediately looking up showtimes to go see this wonderful film again. Every time I saw it after it just got better and better. There was this one infamous time though in senior year psychology when we were analyzing the film and things were being said that rubbed me the wrong way. People behind me were critiquing the film pretty frequently and while everyone is entitled to their own thoughts and opinions, there’s a difference between critiquing and being wrong. *cracks knuckles* Allow me to explain.

You Just Don’t Understand!

Inside Out is a pretty easy film to grasp. The film follows Riley, an 11 year old girl who just moved with her family to San Francisco, and how she is processing the things that are going on around her. This deep dives into her psyche and her five base emotions and how they react to this new world around her. These emotions including Joy, Sadness, Fear, Anger, and Disgust. When things go horribly awry in her mental headquarters though on her first day of school, her Joy and Sadness get transported to the back of her mind as well as losing her core memories. The core memories being what makes up her personality. The rest of the film analyzes the journey of Joy and Sadness and trying to find their way back to mental headquarters to save Riley from being pretty much emotionally numb and doing something that she’ll regret.

What really works well about this film is the fact that you can take either plot with the emotions or the real world with just the humans and the film would still make sense. Would it be as original or interesting if it were just the human story? Probably not and it’d be a whole lot shorter too, but the fact that it can be dissected like that is just a testament to the strong writing.

The thing is you can easily watch this as a kid and fully know what is going on and explains emotions relatively well for kids to understand too. While most films for kids are more subtle about addressing feelings and morality, this one is very to the point. It teaches kids and even adults about what complex emotions play in your life even if you don’t notice it. *SPOILER* The wrap up of the film being that Joy finally understands that in order to be happy sometimes you have to feel sad first is beautiful. To this day I have never seen a film give a lesson like this before. This lesson teaches kids too that while being happy is a necessity in life, it is totally okay to be sad sometimes too. Wow. Goosebumps.

So what were these boneheads in class saying that I felt was wrong to judge the film for? They hated the characters of Sadness and Joy. They thought that Sadness was very annoying and provided nothing to the film until the very end. They didn’t appreciate her mopey and Eeyore-ish perspective of life. What they didn’t like about Joy was the way that she treated Sadness and just her bossy personality. Um… You get that these are emotions right? This is what your emotions do on a daily basis. You can’t control them!!

How Does that Make You Feel?

The reason that Sadness is ‘annoying’ is because nobody wants to be sad. She is the epitome of what we don’t want to be and we hate her for that, the same way we hate being sad. The scene near the beginning of the film where Riley introduces herself to the class and starts to break down in tears talking about her home in Minnesota is the perfect example of this.

While talking about hockey, one of her biggest personality traits, she is very passionate in her dialect and facial expressions. This memory has a yellowish glow to it showing that it is a Joy-centric memory. Sadness touches this core memory being projected from headquarters though and suddenly Riley gets sad and pessimistic. The other four emotions scramble as they try to get this now sad emotion back to being a happy one. Why doesn’t this work? Sadness is a dominant emotional state, this memory is now permanently decorated in glowing blue depression.

What I really respect about this scene is the different visual cues that I didn’t notice the first time around. When all the emotions are trying to prevent a newly formed blue core memory from being put into her core memory shelf it is a visual representation of her mind just going wild, as one would when crying in front of a class. Just because they aren’t at the control pad being the dominant emotion in Riley’s head, doesn’t mean that they all can’t be in control. In the process of rejecting Sadness’s core memory, the other memories try to reject it, but Sadness persists. Kind of like… I don’t know… our own minds? Think to yourself, when you’re feeling down and sad what’s the one thing you want to feel? Sad? Of course not you wanna be happy and just move on! But that isn’t how the brain works homies. If this film succeeded and Sadness didn’t get to put her core memory on the shelf and Riley just stayed happy, would people identify with this character in any way?

Another thing this scene does really well is demonstrating trauma. Kids at a younger age might not understand why they constantly remember something bad that happened in the past. By giving this visual representation of how our minds process and continuously access our core memories, they can gain a better understanding of how being in a depressive state actually feels and looks like.

Let’s talk about Joy next. I’ve heard a lot of people complain about her being to bossy and kind of annoying throughout the movie. From my personal interpretation and this could totally be wrong, but I think Joy is like this because happiness as an emotion always tries to be the driving factor in motivation. Think about it, Joy is so bossy and mean to Sadness because our brains naturally want us to be happy, right? I’ve had plenty of moments in my life where I try to convince myself to not be sad and think “no! Stop it mind!”


So as the film progresses, Riley starts acting visibly weird. Her parents notice and attempt to help her in one scene while eating dinner. The only emotions that reside at headquarters are Fear, Disgust, and Anger. Without Sadness and Joy, Riley is virtually emotionally numbed and doesn’t know what to feel. When a good amount of people have a bad day and are constantly egged on to address what is going on and you don’t wanna address it you’re naturally going to get defensive. These three emotions are commonly associated with negativity especially Anger.

There’s a running visual gag where Anger is seen reading a newspaper where the headline is usually what is going on with Riley and is shocking to her. This gag is more than just for laughs, this is basically saying that Anger is usually the emotion on deck that would be associated with this event. “Riley Quits Hockey” and “No Dessert!” to name the few featured.

There’s one line that I absolutely love in this film and it didn’t even mean anything to me until rewatching it a few days ago. When Joy flips out at Sadness at the beginning of the film, Joy asks what has gotten into her lately. Sadness responds with “I don’t know, I feel weird like something’s wrong with me”. Basically a thought in the back of Riley’s head being confused on why she is feeling sadness lurking subconsciously.

A repeated line that I also didn’t notice until last viewing was her parents repeatedly saying “thanks for being our happy girl” and “who is my happy girl?”. Even the first words said to her as a baby are “aren’t you just a bundle of joy?” This probably puts a lot of pressure on Riley to be what her parents expect her to be. To fit this title of their “happy girl”. This seems more evident at the emotional climax of the film. After Riley comes home from running away, she says “I know you need me to be happy, but I miss home”. It’s little lines like this that make me appreciate how much attention to detail the writers put into this movie.

Wow Look at the Colors!

The animation in this film is stellar and that’s no secret, but there’s so much hidden inside the colors. For example, most of the memories saved throughout the day Riley are stored on massive shelves in the background of headquarters. Usually they are littered with all the different colors of the emotions, purple, red, blue, etc. When they first move into their new home in San Francisco, a majority of the memory orbs in the background are red, green, and purple with little hints of yellow here and there. I love when movies treat the viewer to things like this. Small visual treats in a way for paying attention.

I also love the use of gray in this movie. Gray is a color representative of emotional absence. It is dull, drab, lifeless and lacking substance. When the mind workers suck up the memories that they feel are useless to keep to make room for others, some of the orbs are gray and have somewhat faded visuals. Also whenever Riley loses part of her personality islands they turn gray and lifeless and fall into her pit of memory despair. When Fear, Anger, and Disgust attempt to convince Riley to not follow through with running away the control panel also turns gray. This demonstrates the idea that without emotions to guide her, she is numbed to the world around her. She feels nothing. Her personality and base emotion have been depleted to zero.

The world and islands that the characters venture through are absolutely stunning and imaginative. It’s the exact image of what you think would be going on inside of a preteen’s head and the selectiveness of what gets kept inside her memory for the long run. The scene where Joy chases Sadness at the end is enough proof of how much thought went into creating these settings.

Get Back in There Tear!

As stated previously, the highest merit that Inside Out has to offer is the emotional pull. Obviously going into this movie your expectation is to see emotion being discussed, but I’ve never seen a film tackle emotion like this before. Something that respects the adult audience watching as well as the kids and it’s surprisingly abstract for your average kids’ film. There are so many points in this movie that are just gut punches. Moments where you think to yourself, damn that was me or “damn that IS me”. They tackle depression in a way that was both easy to understand and thought provoking.

The adventure aspect of the movie, while fun and probably the main pull for the kids watching, is deeper than the kid can even imagine which is why I consider this film to be more for older kids probably like 12-13 and up. The small kids will be sad at points where they expect you to be upset (the emotional climax, Bing Bong, etc.), but the reason I say it’s more for older kids and preteens is because for one thing the main character is 11 years old and dealing with dramatic change, but also they’ll be able to relate and identify more to the character of Riley. It’s not often you see characters in any movie or really TV show that are preteens going through depression and trauma the way that Riley does in the film.

When I first saw Inside Out I was 16. I’m not ashamed to say that every time I have watched this film I have bawled my eyes out, which is why I always try to watch this with no one else around. There were so many times when I was younger where I was experiencing the same feeling as Riley was the entire movie. I can’t tell you how many times I just came home from school when I was younger just hating life itself. I never looked forward to sleeping when I was in elementary school because that would mean I would have to start over the next day. While that perspective has changed nowadays, I really wish I had this film back when I was younger. Any reasonable human being with a heart will break down at Bing Bong’s demise, but I found myself getting emotional at the parts where Joy submits to being sad while looking at past memories that are in the pit of forgotten memories and the explanation that sometimes being sad leads to happier things.

It’s okay to be sad was something that had always been said on Twitter and Tumblr so that’s nothing new, but the way that it was demonstrated in the film gave me that a-ha moment. I finally understood what it meant to be okay with being sad after years of trying to figure it out.

Truthfully, you could think of Inside Out as one of those educational videos that they would show you in health class. Sort of like a “Hey kids! If you’re going through a tough time it’s perfectly normal to be feeling these types of emotions.” I can honestly say that mental health is pretty much ignored when it comes to the modern schooling system. Given I haven’t been in a health class for nearly a decade now so maybe their curriculum has matured, but my girlfriend has told me that instead of showing Supersize Me in health classes like they normally would they are showing this movie instead. That’s so great. Obesity, while still a problem for the country, isn’t nearly as predominant a topic as mental health is in mainstream media.

Too many teenagers and children are taking their lives and struggling on an everyday basis and that is practically ignored and looked down upon by the school system. I’ve had this discussion with so many people about what they wish school put more focus on. While most people say non-American forms of history where Americans are painted as the heroes, a handful also say mental health. I think the closest we got to analyzing depression and anxiety in high school was watching the god-awful TV movie Cyberbully.

The Sequel that’ll Never Happen

The final words of the film (not counting the credits) are “Riley is 12 now, what could happen?” This is a call back to the beginning of the film when Joy says the same thing but when Riley’s 11. I can’t help, but wonder if there would ever be a sequel to this and would it ever match the heights of the original.

Kind of alluding to what I was saying earlier, it seems as though a lot of animated movies that come out in recent history have more of an adult following than kids. Films like How to Train Your Dragon, Up, and pretty much any of the Studio Ghibli films have more things in it for adults than a film like Trolls or Boss Baby might have. In a dream scenario, I would love for there to be a sequel to Inside Out where Riley is in her twenties. So many people who are in their 20s nowadays grew up watching Pixar’s films and they always seem to be the movies you can count on being great every time they come out (most of the time). I think tackling mental illness from a more adult perspective would be such a great idea to make into a movie and would resonate extremely well with what I think is Pixar’s core audience.

Sadly, a sequel to this movie probably would never happen. While it did do really high numbers in theaters (Pixar’s 6th highest grossing film) the demand just doesn’t seem as high as something like a third Incredibles or a Ratatouille sequel. It seems as though when it came to promotion too with toys and stuff that it just didn’t seem to be as popular with kids. Look at something like Toy Story and Cars and see how well those sold toys and merchandise. Every third grader in existence probably has Lightning McQueen *fill in the blank*. We all know that kid that was just a little TOO into Cars.


Inside Out has always been nothing short of a perfect film to me. The message, animation, voice acting, and attention to detail are all at the highest bar that could be set. You can tell how much thought and care went into creating a script that tackles something as touchy as mental illness and make it into a fun, colorful kids film that’s easy for both children and adults to understand. People nowadays are very picky with what they pick to show their kids growing up. Inside Out is definitely a film I want my kid(s) to see when they grow up. Just as long as they promise not to make fun of me when I cry into the couch pillows when Bing Bong says to “take her to the moon for me”.

Published by cpetschke

College student, writer, music lover, listener, learner.

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