Well-crafted and crafty, animation studio Pixar’s new film Inside Out meets their own gold standard of excellence and manages to be something that could have been dreadful, overwrought or hokey in less adept hands. It’s a pop movie that deals with psychological concepts in an entertaining manner that’s accessible for all ages. This is no small feat, and the movie feels symptomatic of cultural sea-change in how we perceive the psyche or the field of psychology. Yet, these aspects of Inside Out go fairly under the radar, and the fact that they’re covert only reinforces the movie’s success on its own terms. This brings to mind something the God Entity says at the end of the Futurama episode “Godfellas”: “when you do things right, people won’t be sure you’ve done anything at all.”
Inside Out revolves around Riley (Kaitlyn Dias), an eleven-year old only child whose life is upset when her parents move the family from the Midwest to San Francisco for work purposes. Yet the actual protagonists are Riley’s five basic, anthropomorphized emotions that exist in and helm her mind a la’ Captain Kirk and his crew operate the U.S.S. Enterprise on Star Trek. These emotions are Joy (Amy Poehler), Sadness (Phyllis Smith), Fear (Bill Hader), Anger (Lewis Black) and Disgust (Mindy Kaling), each physically representing and primarily behaving like the feeling that they embody (i.e. Joy is shaped like a bright star, Sadness is shaped like a teardrop.)
Through clever bits of conceptualization, the five emotions generate and process new memories that are rendered as marble-like orbs that are retained or eradicated depending on their value. Furthermore, Riley’s mind is portrayed as a video-game-like world in which there’s a central control station that’s connected to five different islands that are components of Riley’s personality and are sustained by core emotional memories. Has the “gestalt” concept ever been cinematically presented in a manner as enjoyable as it’s presented here? Probably not. (There’s also a good argument to be made about how Inside Out is about the filmmaking process, but I feel that’s veering into Internet “fan theory” territory, a part of my mind that I don’t really wish to build-up.)
As Riley’s life changes, chaos occurs in the world, or workplace, of her mind: Sadness keeps inadvertently affecting memories, which causes Riley’s personality-islands to start decommission themselves. Then Joy, the leader of the emotions, is inadvertently ejected out of the central control station along with Sadness. So as Riley deals with a new city, home and school, Joy and Sadness journey through a fast-changing mind-world in order to find a way back to the helm. Hence, the plot is a neat metaphor for how coping with adversity isn’t always as easy as 1-2-3, especially for a kid who has yet to become equipped. It also demonstrate how “small” narrative stakes can be made to feel important and captivating, something that feels refreshing in era when too many big-budget Hollywood movies have “entire world” stakes that are paradoxically dull.
But like any person, Inside Out isn’t 100% well-adjusted. There are occasions where the Mouse Trap or Jenga-like mechanics of Riley’s mind-world seem to be driven by a need for spectacle and not by any discernible human psychology (i.e. there’s a sequence that takes place in an Abstract Thought room that doesn’t explain the concept of Abstract Thought and seems to mainly serve as an opportunity for Pixar animators to do some experimental, non-representational yet goofy animation.) Also, the role of Disgust is almost non-existent and made me wonder why only those five human emotions were personified and what other emotions could’ve been portrayed. (Imagine Tig Notaro playing Boredom; sounds counter-intuitive, but it could have been funnier or more insightful than a character whose only real purpose is to be grossed out by things.) And this is probably just a quibble that I can’t really prove and may just be subjective, but the comedy seems to skew more on the side of often-sly-jokes-meant-for-adults than jokes-meant-for-kids, which isn’t optimal for something that’s basically meant for children.
Still, the movie’s many merits overshadow any perceived shortcomings. This being Pixar, the computer animation is spotless, particularly the parts that are set in the human world (when it comes to representing people, the studio has come from the Uncanny Valley moments of the first Toy Story.) And the movie is very funny, most likely a result of being punched-up by its comedic cast and script doctors (i.e. there’s a clever running gag regarding “earworms” behaving like pop-up windows on your Internet browser.) Moreover, you can’t fault the film for a lack of ambition or its ability to meet its ambitions: despite the emotional and practical complexity of Riley’s mind-world, the trickiest aspect of the narrative, exposition is dispensed as ably and lucidly as memory orbs are dispensed by the five personified human emotions.
Speaking of meeting ambitions: it’s dicey for any filmmaker to make a movie that’s so intrinsically about emotional psychology as there’s a good chance they won’t provide a resolution that rings true or resonate with most of the audience; nevertheless, with the help of composer Michael Giacchino’s careful and effective score, Docter and Del Carmen stick the landing in this regard, which in turn makes Inside Out rich and profound family entertainment. Here’s a compassionate mainstream movie which ends up saying that emotions a) are the thing that make us most of who we are, b) need to be properly considered and maintained, and c) can be developed in a way that will make us more able to deal with life’s inevitable difficulties, and it communicates these things in a manner that does not feel prescriptive, too evident, or wrongfully simplified. Last and probably more importantly, the movie’s intent is to convey these things to parents and their children in the audience. This movie is the “spoonful of sugar” version of family therapy treatment that can be consumed by and nourish almost anyone. (I can also say that, as someone who’s currently going to therapy, Inside Out is like a psychiatry session that in-of-itself doubles as the ice cream that I tend to consume after an emotionally exhausting therapy session.)
I do not have children, so I don’t feel as though I have much of a leg to stand on when it comes to saying how kids should be raised. But I’m compelled to mention that Pete Docter got the idea for this film when he was thinking about his own eleven-year old daughter, wondering what was going on in her mind, and wanted to help and guide her, like any decent parent would. So if that bit of production trivia turns on the waterworks for you, then you’ll have a good cry at Inside Out, like I did.