Before we even laid eyes on Riley, the eleven-year-old animated star of Pixar’s Inside Out, we knew that she would be like us. At least, we knew that she would be more like us than some of the other stars of Pixar’s most beloved features, which tend to run towards the make-believe (monsters, talking toys), the fantastic (superheroes, talented vermin) and the slightly terrifying (cars). Pixar’s films aren’t typically concerned with stories centered on actual humans, even as they are packed with human emotions and experiences using charming surrogates (bugs, robots, fish), and the concept of Inside Out — a film that is entirely about the human condition, literally from the inside out — was a big, welcome change.
The creative decision to cast a tween girl — a regular tween girl — as the star was also a major step forward for the animation house. Pixar films may not ascribe to the same “Princess” mentality of Disney’s animated outings (every girl is a princess, even if she’s not, and they all look eerily similar), but they tend to rely more heavily on male heroes (and, no, we’re not discounting Monsters, Inc.‘s Boo or Brave‘s Merida, but of fourteen Pixar films, thirteen of them are principally focused on their male leads, with women playing second fiddle in every film but Brave). Even better, the team at Pixar has spent a lot of their own marketing time pumping Inside Out up as being an important departure for them.
Even the film’s official synopsis drives home both Riley’s relatability and her importance in the Pixar world (bold notations our own):
From the tepuis of South America to a monster-filled metropolis, Academy Award®-winning director Pete Docter has taken audiences to unique and imaginative places. In 2015, he will take us to the most extraordinary location of all – inside the mind of an 11-year-old named Riley.
Growing up can be a bumpy road, and it’s no exception for Riley, who is uprooted from her Midwest life when her father starts a new job in San Francisco. Like all of us, Riley is guided by her emotions – Joy (Amy Poehler), Fear (Bill Hader), Anger (Lewis Black), Disgust (Mindy Kaling) and Sadness (Phyllis Smith). The emotions live in Headquarters, the control center inside Riley’s mind, where they help advise her through everyday life. As Riley and her emotions struggle to adjust to a new life in San Francisco, turmoil ensues in Headquarters. Although Joy, Riley’s main and most important emotion, tries to keep things positive, the emotions conflict on how best to navigate a new city, house and school.
Riley is, like all of us, a bit of a slave to her own emotions. Which is why she also happens to look like us. She’s got messy hair and an awkward tooth situation and a nose that looks like the kind you’d see walking down the street (although, presumably, not on its own). What’s most important for Inside Out is what’s going on inside Riley, and her outward appearance reflects a cute, normal kid who is struggling with normal kid issues.
Our own Chris Campbell posted the first look at Riley over at Movies.com yesterday, where it was meant with the kind of first class trolling that we’ve (sadly) come to expect on the Internet. The first comment on Campbell’s piece on Riley — again, a first look at an animated eleven-year-old child — declared “she is hideous.” (Side note: oh, come on, dude.)
The stylistic elements of animated films makes it easy to make “human” characters look, well, not quite human and far more idealized than we’d ever expect to see out in the real world. When the team at Pixar made Brave, they aimed to make Merida look more relatable to teen girls. Her kinky, curly hair was a particular concern for the team, who strived to make it look very real (and, in kind, very relatable). Merida doesn’t look like the Disney Princesses (even though she was temporarily subjected to a “sexier” makeover by Disney). Riley doesn’t either.
Riley looks like what she is: a regular tween girl, the kind of heroine that Pixar fans of all ages can relate to and feel compelled to root for. Inside Out is her own extraordinary story, but that doesn’t mean that an ordinary girl isn’t the perfect fit.