I’ve seen Pixar’s latest film, Inside Out, twice now. I’ve had some weeks to process the film and even review it, though I likely I won’t uncover all of its secrets and surprises until I watch it at least a dozen times.
That’s just how it goes with rich animated features from this studio…
You can read my overall review on the movie, but the short version is this: Inside Out is a superb film that manages to stand out as Pixar’s best film since Finding Nemo. Yes, even better than The Incredibles.
But does it exist in a shared universe of Pixar movies? That’s the question many people have been asking me since long before the movie even released its first teaser.
In 2013, I composed a blog post (nay, thesis) that argues for the grand unification of every Pixar movie. I crafted a narrative evidenced by each film and put them on a linear timeline that starts with Brave and ends with Monsters Inc., though really it ends with Brave again.
It’s been two years, so a lot of my original ideas for the Pixar Theory have changed dramatically. I’ve spent some of that time (OK, fine, a LOT of that time) writing a book that fine-tunes some of my arguments for this grand experiment. Admittedly, the original theory had a lot of flaws I simply hadn’t thought out yet.
I’ve avoided updating the theory since 2013 in order to present them in this book, which has recently been published and is available now (as an e-book only until the print version starts shipping within the next week or so).
That said, I recommend you first read the book before judging how I’m about to incorporate Inside Out into this expansive Pixar world that “started” back in 1995 with Toy Story. I’ll be talking about ideas that the book addresses in detail, though I’ll do my best to simplify them as you read below.
So let’s get started!
What is Inside Out about?
Put simply, it’s the story of a young, 11-year old girl named Riley Anderson whose entire world changes when she finds herself moving from her hometown, Minnesota, to San Francisco, where her father has gotten a new job. I especially found the setting fun and relatable considering I moved to San Francisco just last year.
The story is told through Riley’s eyes, but also through the eyes of her emotions. You’re immediately thrust inside Riley’s head, where her emotions grow into personified caricatures from her birth to present. You have Joy, Anger, Sadness, Fear, and Disgust. Together, they help make decisions for Riley that play out in the real world.
As Riley experiences the struggles of growing up in a new town with its new hardships, her emotions have to comedically help her navigate what it’s really like to be a kid. Well, a kid in a Pixar movie at least.
When does Inside Out take place?
From what I’ve seen of the film, Inside Out indeed takes place in the present. Riley’s birth apparently happens sometime in 2003 or 2004, placing it right after or perhaps even during the events of Finding Nemo. By the time Riley is 11, the year is 2015.
This is evidenced by the fact that Riley uses an advanced smartphone along with a video messaging surrogate for Skype. Now, this could fit into several other years. Perhaps as far back as 2011 or 2012. But there’s nothing in the movie that suggests this is a few years ago, so I think it’s safe to say the filmmakers intended for the movie to be placed in the modern day.
Of course, there are lots of easter eggs in this movie that lend some credence to this being in the same universe as every other Pixar movie. But I’ll save the killer piece of evidence for last, especially since it brings in some mild spoilers.
If you haven’t seen Inside Out yet, which is a majority of you for now, and don’t want to spoiled AT ALL for this film, then now is the time for you to save this article in your notes for later. In the meantime, you can read the Pixar Theory book if you’re interested and come back to this when you’ve seen Inside Out after we reach June 19th.
I’ll start with the most obvious easter egg even casual fans of Pixar will notice. When Riley moves into her new house in San Francisco, she finds a dead rat in the corner of her living room (and her nightmare, eventually). The rat looks a lot like Remy from Ratatouille.
There are some ways to go about this. You could just say that this is a Pixar-designed rat that happens to look like many of the ones we saw in Ratatouille. You may be tempted, however, to suggest that this is actually Remy himself, but deceased.
Well, that actually can’t be the case for two reasons. The big one is that Ratatouille happens sometime between 2004 and 2007 (likely 2007). And rats don’t have long lifespans. There’s no chance Remy could have lived another eight or so years, considering the average life span for a rat is under three. Even if he doesn't live his life eating garbage...
Second, the rat we see in Inside Out actually has an upturned snout. This is consistent with the normal rats we see in Ratatouille. But Remy has a downward snout because it’s easier for him to smell and cook (the design artists point this out). Regardless, the fact that the same looking rat exists this far from Paris definitely makes me think that Pixar is trying to tell us something (maybe).
There are several other interesting easter eggs, but I’ll save them for bullet points at the end of this post. For now, let’s get to the convincing stuff.
The Convincing Stuff.
One of the main tenets of the Pixar Theory, especially as I explain in the book, is the idea that humans are batteries. This is a consistent theme throughout many of the movies. We have intelligent machines in The Incredibles learning how to manipulate humans in the 1950s by inserting themselves into mass-produced toys that can become self-aware in the Toy Story movies.
And the reason they do this is because human imagination powers them. We also see this in Monsters Inc., and it’s sort of implied by the never-ending loop we see in WALL-E, where machines just serve every human need for what could be infinity.
I could go on and on about this because it’s such a persistent theme in the movies. But what I love about Inside Out is that it finally gives us more context into why humans are so special. And it has to do with emotions. Pixar has taken us inside the actual head of a kid. The same kind of kid who could power the society of monsters in Monsters Inc. We now know that emotions are the key factor into what makes a human so powerful.
Emotions are so powerful, they apparently make our decisions for us. It’s not free will as we like to define it, according to Pixar. You’re governed by internal demigods that work to elicit the best possible circumstances for your life. Anger works to make sure your life is fair. Fear protects you from harm. Disgust helps you make judgements. Sadness connects you to others and balances you. And Joy will stop at nothing to make you happy.
The rules of these emotions are fairly consistent with Monsters Inc. In that movie, we learn that laughter and joy are far more powerful than fear. That makes a ton of sense since Joy is the emotion that calls the shots for Riley in Inside Out.
She bosses the other emotions around pretty effortlessly, and its her core memories that reveal Riley doing incredible things, like scoring a hockey goal at a very young age. When the movie starts, all of Riley's core memories are powered by Joy.
Even Pixar has outright positioned this movie as the emotional core of its anthology. The first teaser begins with a slew of scenes from various movies that highlight the main emotions of Inside Out. And the movie itself manages to spell this all out for you with a reimagined world that’s governed by its own rules.
Of course, these are all interpretations. Where’s the hard evidence? What truly ties this movie into the Pixar Theory? Yeah, I’m not done.
The Hard Evidence.
There’s a character in Inside Out you will surely fall in love with. And he happens to be the strongest link to the other Pixar movies. Well, Monsters Inc., to be specific.
HIs name is Bing Bong. He’s Riley’s imaginary friend from when she was three. He’s part cat, part elephant, made of cotton candy, and even cries candy. He’s also based on…a monster from the future.
So the idea is that Monsters Inc., actually takes place in the future. Long after humans die out, the monsters take their place as animal hybrids. According to the special features on the DVD for Monsters Inc., the monsters were created when tribal humans ate fruit from a tree that gave them the characteristics and appearances of the animals who had eaten from that tree. Sulley, for example, is like a cat mixed with a bear and a goat.
The monsters would eventually rebuild society after humans ruined it, but they’d run out of energy to power everything. So they turn to time travel to find the only humans they can. They use doors to travel back in time, where they can scare humans, and those emotional reactions fill the canisters that power their world. To prevent a fluid timeline, they keep the time travel aspect a secret and banish monsters who break the rules. They even have an agency devoted to propagating the myth that humans are toxic.
But in Monsters Inc., that all changes when our hero, Sulley, learns that human laughter is vastly more powerful than screams. In other words, joy is tougher than fear (and if you saw Inside Out, you’d believe that). Instead of scaring children, monsters now make them laugh.
Now, imagine you’re a kid who just saw a monster come through your door at night and make you laugh. Wouldn’t you think this is a dream? And wouldn’t that monster eventually become an imaginary friend you take with you on adventures? Remember, this is happening when you’re 2 or 3, the same age this happens to, you guessed it, Boo from Monsters Inc., and Riley from Inside Out.
Bing Bong is an animal hybrid with exaggerated characteristics. He talks about how he made Riley laugh, and he’s presented as the film’s comic relief when Joy and Sadness explore Riley’s longterm memory. I think Bing Bong is based on a real monster that Riley encountered at a young age. He actually was part cat and part elephant, and his comedic routine must have involved making dolphin noises, as we see in the movie.
Riley still remembers him after all this time because he felt real to her, so he became her imaginary friend. The Bing Bong we meet is a version of the monster that came through her closet. She just filled in some of the blanks.
Since she couldn’t understand why he was pink, Riley imagined that he was made of cotton candy. And part of his backstory with Riley is that they powered a red wagon with “songs” to make it fly. In fact, the wagon is still lingering in Riley’s mind, and it's shown to actually respond to song power, which is very reminiscent of the idea that inanimate objects can be powered by simple emotions.
If a wagon can be powered by Joy’s song, then, well...you need to see this movie!
Part of my overall theory is that Boo from Monsters Inc., grows up trying to remember where Sulley came from. She hasn't forgotten Sulley in the same way that Riley hasn't forgotten Bing Bong at age 11. That's the effect he's had on her over all of the other imaginary friends Riley has had that we never see in this movie.
This all ties into a lot of Riley’s development as a character, as well. Because she grew up with a best friend that made her laugh all the time, she appears to be a very happy, well-functioning child. It seems like the consequence of monsters becoming less “scary” and more friendly is having a positive effect on the character of the humans themselves. Here's a mild spoiler...
When we enter Riley's "subconscious," we find out she's scared of clowns. The dialogue of this clown informs us that he was at her birthday party, and she found him terrifying. It's interesting that THIS is who she's scared of. Not a "monster."
While we watch Riley grow up, we see that she’s mostly happy all the time (as Joy points out), she loves hockey and other outdoor things, she has great friendships, and she gets along really well with her family.
In Monsters Inc., Waternoose explains that the persistence of technology and television is starting to numb children to a fault. So they’re not scared as much. Riley, on the other hand, barely uses any technology. We see her video message a friend once and ignore a call from her smartphone the one time it shows up. When she sits down to eat a lonely lunch, her eyes aren’t glued to her phone. She’s always in the moment.
Contrast that with the humans of WALL-E (or normal people you know right now). In a way, the humans on Axiom are just as joyful as Riley. I’ve pointed out in a separate article how the humans of that movie were interestingly polite and well-behaved people (and they were probably better off without everything that WALL-E did).
These people seemed genuinely content and happy. But at the same time, they were completely numb to the outside world thanks to their over-reliance on technology.
So what if the timeline is changing? What if the result of Boo and Sulley’s story is that the events of WALL-E won’t even happen because humans ultimately reject the brainwashing of BnL and its stalker-ish toys that demand your attention throughout adulthood?
Perhaps this whole time, we’ve been watching two Pixar timelines diverging thanks to the funny side effects of time travel, and their story is just beginning? I’m definitely excited to think about the possibilities.
Thanks for reading, all. I hope you find Inside Out as fun as I did. As promised, here are some easter egg bullet points you can read through and look out for when you watch Inside Out again or for the first time.
Feel free to ask questions in the comments, but just know that many of them are probably answered by the book. I’ll do my best to give you the short version, though!
- There's a globe in Riley's classroom that has been shown in every single Toy Story film.
- Some of the cars in San Francisco have bumper stickers from the Pixar movie, Cars
- Bing Bong disturbs a cloud person in Imaginationland, and he looks a lot like the cloud from the Pixar short, "Partly Cloudy."
- Some of the background memories in Riley's mind show scenes from Carl and Ellie's life in Up. Could this mean that Riley has a connection to those characters? I'll have to rewatch and see what the scenes are exactly to make a relevant comment.
- One of Riley's classmates wears a camo shirt with Toy Story characters on it. Well, their silhouettes, at least. It even looks like Arlo from The Good Dinosaur is on there as well. There's even a popular girl at the school with a skull t-shirt in the same fashion as Sid's from Toy Story, just in a different color.
- A banner in Riley's hockey rink showcases a team from Tri-County, which is the setting for Toy Story. I explain this easter egg further in a different article.
- Blink and you'll miss a "For the Birds" cameo during Riley's road trip to San Francisco in the beginning of the movie. It's just like their appearance in Cars.
I'm sure there are tons more easter eggs just waiting to be uncovered. If you catch one I've missed, let me know!