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Riley Andersen is an 11-year-old-girl growing up in Minnesota, and life is good. She's got loving parents, great friends, awesome hockey teammates—and a staff of five personified emotions running the show from Headquarters in her, well, head.
Ready to meet the team and get a quick tour of her brain? Here we go:
Joy leads a team of feelings that also includes Fear, Disgust, Anger, and Sadness. From behind their control panel in Riley's head, they manage everything Riley thinks, feels, and does, including her memories. Memories are manufactured on the spot and take the shape of color-coded orbs, each one colored according to the emotion that's associated with the experience. Riley's eyes are their windows to her world.
Riley also has a set of Core Memories, each of which fuels part of her personality. Those parts of her personality are represented by islands, like Hockey Island and Family Island. Just beyond Riley's Personality Islands is Long-Term Memory, row after towering row of memory orbs. Beneath the islands is the dark and treacherous Memory Dump, where memories go to fade away forever.
Alright, let's get back to the plot now.
The Andersens move to San Francisco and, suddenly, things aren't so hot for Riley. On her first day of school, Sadness touches some of Riley's Minnesota memories, and Riley has a full-on sobfest while describing life back in the Land of 10,000 Lakes in front of her new classmates.
Inside Headquarters, a little mayhem breaks out: Joy tries to get rid of the sad memory, Sadness tries to keep it, and they both get sucked up a tube and transplanted to Long-Term Memory, along with Riley's Core Memories, which got loose in the scuffle.
With Joy absent from the control panel, Riley won't be able experience happiness, so Joy needs to get back to HQ, ASAP.
In the meantime, Anger, Disgust, and Fear try to "do what Joy would do." The results are terrible. Riley lashes out at her parents and does a lousy job at hockey tryouts. Hockey Island starts to crumble into the Memory Dump below.
Anger plugs the idea to run away to Minnesota, where she was happy, into Riley's control panel. Meanwhile, Joy and Sadness meet Bing Bong, Riley's old imaginary friend in Long-Term Memory. He says they can get back to Headquarters by catching the Train of Thought. It's a perfect plan until Riley falls asleep and the train stops for the night.
Joy, Sadness, and Bing Bong sneak into Dream Production Studios, and interrupt one of Riley's dreams, which wakes her up and gets the train chugging along again. All's well until Riley nicks her mom's credit card to buy a bus ticket to Minnesota. That causes Honesty Island to crash, derailing the Train of Thought.
Joy tries to take a recall tube back to Headquarters, but the ground in Long-Term Memory starts cracking and crumbling, too, and she and Bing Bong plunge into the Memory Dump.
Poised to give up, Joy takes another look at the bag of Riley's Core Memories that she's been carrying. She discovers that one of Riley's happiest memories was actually caused by a sad memory. Riley's parents and teammates showed Riley empathy and cheered her up after she blew a game-winning goal. Joy realizes that sadness (and therefore capital-S Sadness) is useful. Necessary, even.
Joy and Bing Bong try to use Bing Bong's rocket ship (read: a wagon) to launch themselves out of the Memory dump and fail repeatedly. On their last attempt, Bing Bong bails at the last minute, lightening the load enough that Joy can sail to safety, and sacrificing his chance to make it out of the Memory Dump. He fades away into nothingness and it's sadder than that time a pigeon flew off with our churro.
Joy finds Sadness, and they make it back to Headquarters, where Joy gives the control panel over to Sadness, and Riley's Core Memories turn blue. Sadness jumpstarts the controls and unplugs Joy's idea of running away. Riley comes home and confesses to her parents that she misses Minnesota like crazy. They assure her that that's totally okay; in fact, they miss Minnesota, too.
Sadness has saved the day.
When we fast forward a year into the future, we see that Riley's life is all good again. She's still got those loving parents and she's got new friends and hockey teammates. At Headquarters, there's an expanded control panel to accommodate her increasingly complex emotions. Her personality islands have been restored, too; in fact, a few new ones have been added, like Boy Band Island.
Fear hopes that one's just a phase.