I’m probably as stubbornly seated at the end of Inside Out as many are about giving the film a standing ovation—but I am clapping, moderately. I both enjoyed and esteemed the latest Pixar installment. But I’m not ready to give away the farm, quiet yet.
Then again, I know that makers of animated films are confronted with a nearly impossible task these days, with an audience that includes distractable toddlers, bored parents, and those who are neither. And since everyone can rewatch the films endlessly once they're released for home viewing, the movies have to hold up to intense scrutiny—nearly frame by frame. There’s no such thing as a throwaway gag any more. Lyrics for Frozen were endlessly dissected, dialogue was parsed, images of a family in a sauna put under the microscope.
So in such a landscape, the near universal praise for Inside Out is more remarkable than any curmudgeonly sighs coming from a few critics who aren’t as enthused. And part of me really wants to just join in with the choir of enthusiasts, rather than singing my own song. If it’s not quite out of tune, I sense I am not getting the harmonies right.
But for a film boasting about the importance of the imagination in the human brain, the film is pretty formulaic. Like Toy Story, it tells a generic but pathos-laden story of adolescent trauma from the viewpoint of animated creatures whose existence is tied to and parallels the aforementioned adolescent. The major characters are not living toys but emotions: Joy (Amy Poehler), Anger (Lewis Black), Fear (Bill Hader), Sadness (Phyllis Smith), and Disgust (Mindy Kaling). They live in the brain of Riley, a precocious Minnesota girl who likes hockey but gets hauled to San Francisco when her dad’s work precipitates a family move.
Although the conceit works better than just about any other film attempts at allegory, it’s still a little disappointing to see the tired metaphor of the human brain symbolized in mechanical terms. Riley has core memories that support elements of her personality. When those memories, along with Joy and Sadness, are displaced, Riley starts acting out—yelling at her parents and stealing from her mom’s purse. The inside of her head is creatively rendered, but the world-building is sketchy. As Joy and Sadness make their fantastic voyage back to the control center, they hitch a ride on a train of thought, run through a dangerous zone of abstraction, stop at dream production, get locked in a subconscious dungeon, and risk falling into a chasm of permanent forgetfulness.
Most allegories and metaphors break down if you push them too far. I’m not sure why the brain would treat emotions and memories the same, or why a spaceship that has been forgotten could be used to escape a chasm of forgetfulness.
Obviously that’s not a deal-breaker, but it is a sign of poor storytelling. And this is the result: the middle act of Inside Out is the weakest because we’re not really sure what the rules are in this universe. So when the action gets funneled into a narrative tight spot, the solution is to drop in a new element: an imaginary friend. That friend lives in the corridors of long-term memory and knows the way around (despite having not read the manual). Then there’s the chute that goes straight to the control center that’s found at a convenient moment, and there’s a train of thought’s track that is destroyed but doesn’t appear to halt all thoughts. The pacing is off in the middle as well. It feels like filler, and it drags.
But the writing gets much stronger when the payoff arrives. As soon as Joy draws a tight circle around Sadness and tells her to stay in it, Inside Out lets us know it isn’t comfortable with Riley’s mom telling her they need to “keep smiling” (regardless of what they actually feel) for dad’s sake. The film leans a tad feminist by underscoring the way we assume some emotions are more acceptable for different genders—in a brief glimpse into the parents’ heads, we see mom ruled by Sadness and dad by Anger. And it’s culturally subversive in daring to question the idea that our highest good comes from pursuing happiness.
It’s also refreshing to see parents who are mostly both loving and attentive. Inside Out is one of the few movies I can think of where a child’s distress is a natural consequence of growing up, rather than as precipitated by some unreasonable maternal expectation or careless paternal blunder.
One more note: at one point early in their journey, Joy and Sadness are nearly destroyed by wandering into a zone of abstract thought. Abstraction leads to deconstruction, you see, and deconstruction (we are told) destroys everything in its path.
This makes no sense. The imagination needs abstract thought as much as emotion to run. So maybe this episode was just a poke at critics, like the Ebersisk in Willow. Maybe it was just an excuse to render the animated characters in a cubist style to give the art historians a chuckle. But if nothing else, it was a classic example of the reader-response concept of a work instructing you how to read it.
So here is what it seems to say: don’t think too much, and give your brain over to your emotions. Follow the second half of those instructions, and you should like the film as much as I did. Follow the first half, and you may like it even more.
Inside Out is rated PG. The MPAA lists “mild thematic elements,” most probably dealing with Riley’s aborted attempt to run away from home. Riley sees a dead mouse when she first enters her San Francisco home. There is plenty of cartoon peril for Joy and Sadness—falling from heights, being chased by an angry clown, being locked in a gloomy dungeon. In a flashback to Riley as a baby, her bare bottom is shown running out of (or away from) bath time. Later, during a dream, Riley imagines the other kids laughing at her because she is at school with no pants on. The film doesn’t show anything immodest in that scene—it is a point-of-view shot from Riley seeing others laughing at her. Still, the film’s mild fixation on the generic embarrassment of being naked in a public place seemed a bit odd in today’s hyper-sensitive as well as hyper-sexed culture. Anger has a reoccurring joke about the amount of swear words he knows, but when he says one, it is inaudible.
Kenneth R. Morefield (@kenmorefield) is an associate professor of English at Campbell University. He is the editor of Faith and Spirituality in Masters of World Cinema, Volumes I, II, & III, and the founder of 1More Film Blog.
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