dir: Peter Docter
We’ve missed you, Pixar. I’ve missed you. I’ve missed the days when you made beautiful, touching, insanely fun animated movies that we could watch again and again and feel joyful about each time.
It’s been a while.
The supreme virtue Pixar used to hold, prior to its purchase by Disney, wasn’t just that it was producing the best looking computer animated movies of their day. It was that it was making the kinds of movies with the kinds of stories that other shittier companies wouldn’t or couldn’t make. Anyone can make an animated movie, seemingly. Only Pixar was making Pixar-like movies, if you’ll allow the obvious tautology.
Its run was almost unprecedented. The only other company I can think of that had such a sustained consistent run in terms of originality and quality is probably Studio Ghibli. That came to an end seemingly after Up, I think. I mean, some of the other Pixar flicks haven’t been completely terrible (Brave was an okay attempt at doing something ‘different’ for Pixar but the same as everyone else, but there just isn’t any compelling reason to ever pop that Blu-Ray in the machine, ever, no pressure from the kids, either).
Inside Out, I think, is a return to form not because it’s made like a billion dollars. It’s a triumph because there isn’t another animated flick out there like it. It’s because it’s a somewhat unconventional story told in enjoyable ways that don’t entirely pander to the dictates of the animated flick formula (even if it is rife with merchandising opportunities).
It’s also deceptively rich and complex in its storytelling, expansive in its psychological breadth and overall I found it deeply satisfying.
I can’t say that about most of the films I’ve watched, animated or otherwise, for the longest time.
Even if the premise isn’t entirely unique (at the very least there’s Herman’s Head, the ill-fated sitcom where the emotions/thoughts in a character’s head were personified), the application of it is fairly novel. Riley is an eleven-year-old girl who’s recently moved with her parents from Minnesota to San Francisco. Her emotions are embodied as these distinct characters in her head that operate the ‘console’ that governs her facial expressions and outward reactions. They are Joy, Sadness, Fear, Disgust and Anger. You might think the average person has more emotions than that, but that’s part of the storyline already. Just wait and see.
Around them in the control room in Riley’s head at this glass-like globes being formed by Riley’s experiences of the world. They are memories, all coloured dependent on what emotion accompanied that experience. Really important memories become core memories, which are fundamental to her personality (represented by these various ‘Lands’, like Familyland, Honestyland, Hockeyland etc.) The rest of her memories travel through a conduit to the realm of Long Term Memory, a vast library of shelves, whenever she sleeps.
Within her head as well are other aspects of her mind, like an Abstraction Zone, Imagination Land, the Dream production studios, the dark and frightening Subconscious, and the Memory Dump, where memories go to be forgotten.
It’s all very well thought out, with one eye on a Theory of Mind textbook and the other on depicting a young girl’s mind in a way that’s visually engaging but also makes a kind of sense (storytelling-wise, not in terms of cognitive theory or whatever).
The problem is… well, there are multiple problems. Not with the film, oh no, but with Riley. The move from the snowbound Winter is Coming No Wait It’s Permanently Here confines of her previous home to the foggy decadent misery of San Francisco has left her feeling not quite herself.
And if she’s not feeling like she used to feel, that means the emotions in her head are going berserk. It’s never clearly articulated, but though you’d argue comfortably that her emotions are the protagonists of the story, it’s never really clear that their actions are the ones governing what she does: I’m just as comfortable accepting that her emotions do what they do, or think they’re doing what their doing, after the fact, even if it looks like actions Joy and Sadness and even Bing Bong (who?) are taking are governing the outcomes.
It’s easygoing either way. When Riley faces real hardship for the first time in her life, and doesn’t know how to deal with it, her parents miss the boat completely, and tell her the worst possible thing: it’s a trying time for them too, but they (presumably) have the maturity and the coping skills to cope. They tell Riley they need her to be their happy little girl since times are so tough, so just keep smiling, Riley, just stay happy at all costs.
Well, what that means practically is that Joy runs roughshod over the other emotions, trying to dominate them into preventing Riley from feeling anything adverse at all costs. This, to put it mildly, makes things worse. Much worse. Catastrophically worse.
It’s not an understatement to say that this story goes in a fairly complicated direction. I hesitate to call it dark, because that has connotations which I don’t intend (when you use the adjective ‘dark’ people either think of a Batman movie or sexually inappropriate material). It’s nothing like that, but it does represent that Riley herself is in real serious danger.
It’s not made explicit as to how serious the danger is, but at least symbolically, the sorrow Riley is feeling isolates her from those who could help her. Her embarrassment at her first day at her new school, the horrible memory it produces, her lack of anyone to see what she’s going through, her break with her former best friend out of jealousy, all these just isolate her further.
And that’s when everything starts to fall apart.
There is a real feeling that she is in trouble. I know how stories aimed at kids in mass-marketed movies always turn out, because I’m not a complete idiot. Still, there were many times as aspects of her personality sheered away and collapsed, and Joy & Sadness’ journey of self-discovery kept being stymied, that it seemed like Riley wasn’t going to be okay.
And, you know what? She wasn’t okay. Despite Joy’s increasingly desperate efforts to ensure Riley doesn’t feel what Joy thinks are ‘bad’ emotions, like an insanely over-protective parent, who’s more concerned with their own hassles, and doesn’t want the drama of having to relate to a child as a person rather than as something whose emotions can be managed with bribes or threats, Joy is, in some ways, the villain.
Not only can’t she ‘save’ Riley, but her actions are increasingly harmful. They’re not malicious, though, and we can ‘see’ how much Joy loves Riley, and wants what’s best for her. That impulse, though, is part of the problem.
As Joy and Sadness interact, they have a particularly manic-depressive dynamic which changes, which has to change, over the course of their ‘adventure’ when they get separated from the others. We can infer that Riley’s depression means she’s unable to feel either joy or sadness, but of course this is represented as Joy and Sadness desperately trying to restore Riley’s capacity for happiness by preserving a number of core memories.
It is, of course, the wrong course of action, but beautifully depicted, as we end up seeing just how important Sadness is in the formation of a healthy, resilient maturing child. In fact, for me, there were moments that were heartbreaking examples of great storytelling.
One of them involves Riley’s father, oblivious to what his daughter is going through, trying to joke and pal around with her using an old family monkey routine. We’ve seen them do it before, but this time, as Riley is crumbling inside, it falls flatter than flat. And he doesn’t even understand why.
They even, amidst all these heart-felt shenanigans going on, find time to depict Riley’s imaginary friend from childhood, Bing Bong (voiced by the perfect voice of pathetic pathos, Richard Kind), a horrifying amalgam of cotton candy, cat and elephant. Like much of Riley’s early childhood, he’s almost entirely forgotten, but he still lingers on, hanging around, waiting for the perfect moment for him and Riley to fly to the moon on their song-powered rocket wagon.
What does all this craziness build to? It builds to a sequence of touching moments where Riley grows up, Joy realises she needs to stop herself from allowing Riley to feel all the emotions she needs to in order to grow. And, perfectly done for my money, the real value of sadness (in general) and Sadness (as a character) is revealed, when Riley crosses the moment in maturity through experience and pain, into allowing herself to grow into a person who experiences life and emotions with greater complexity and more satisfaction.
And all of this is done with a deft touch, with humour, without saccharine, without overt manipulation, and with keen intelligence and, dare I say it, insight. It’s really quite remarkable.
All the characters doing the main voices work well together, and deliver top notch dialogue and interactions, increasing the believability of what is still, on paper, an insanely outlandish premise. You can’t really get anyone more appropriate than Lewis Black for Anger. He personifies and exemplifies anger, like he has for decades. The others are fine too (Mindy Kaling doing her best Valley Girl impression as Disgust, Bill Hader brings the nervy anxiety as Fear, but obviously it’s mostly the Amy Poehler Show, because, duh, she’s Amy Poehler).
I loved Inside Out, and my daughter, to whom all of the psychological bullshit I’ve just related meant not a thing, thought it was a blast. She loved Joy, obviously, and couldn’t see her for the evil manic scold that she truly is.
I, of course, loved Sadness, because, well, you know.
Inside Out is the best Pixar film since the last great Pixar film, whichever one you so choose
9 times the Abstraction Zone was utterly pretentious and utterly brilliant out of 10
“I say we lock ourselves in our room and use that one swear word we know. It's a good one!” – it sounds like the wisest course of action – Inside Out