Five Reflections on Pixar’s Inside Out

My husband and I wasted little time getting to the theater to see the new Pixar hit, Inside Out, on its opening weekend. Over the last year, we both eagerly consumed news of Pete Doctor’s latest brainchild, having so dearly loved both Monster’s Inc. and Up. My husband, an extraordinary animator and character designer himself, felt increasingly giddy with each new piece of tantalizing teaser content. I was a little more skeptical. I knew the basic premise of the movie: a look at the emotions of an 11-year-old girl after her family moves to a new city, but I had many questions:

How can you show character arcs in characters who, of necessity, must consistently embody specific emotions?

How closely will this story reflect real biological mechanisms?

Will the story even be interesting?

You see, I love story. A well-told story both warms my heart and stimulates my mind. While Pixar has proven itself a master of story in the past (Monster’s Inc., The Incredibles, Ratatouille, etc.), more recent films impressed us less. Brave, for instance, was a catastrophe in storytelling. What the heck were those little fairy things and why does Merida keep following them? Why is this girl so determined to poison her own mother? What are the rules of this fate-changing business? All this to say, I was dubious of Inside Out’s potential, especially considering the daunting subject matter.

Now that I have seen it, I have a short and a long version of my review:

The short of it: Definitely go see this movie. As a creative exercise, Pete Doctor’s trip into this little girl’s mind cannot fail but to impress. Coming out of the theater I dearly wanted to turn around and see it again to appreciate more fully the amount of research that went into the film. I wish I knew more about psychology and neuroscience because I wager this film is jammed with references to current theories on brain function and behavioral science. As a story, Inside Out is perhaps not as rich or satisfyingly complex as many of its predecessors, but it still kept me engaged and made me tear up at the end (in a good way!).

The long of it: Josh and I had several thoughts coming out of this movie. I would love to hear yours as well so please chime in below in the comments.

1. No Villain.
As I have learned in my study of storytelling, stories are stories because of conflict. If there is no conflict, there is no story. Most often, and especially in animated films, conflict comes from an external force, usually in the form of a villain. Inside Out bypasses this convention and instead risks leaving conflict merely to challenging circumstances. Circumstance A has Riley, the 11-year old, and her parents moving from Minnesota to San Francisco, an upheaval that challenges Riley’s emotional status quo. Circumstance B involves two of Riley’s anthropomorphized emotions, Joy and Sadness, getting lost in Riley’s mind and trying to get back to “headquarters” to reestablish Riley’s emotional balance. So, no bad guy. Do we miss the bad guy? Not really, which is in itself impressive. I did feel, however, that I never really feared for the main characters, which indicates the conflict could have been weightier. Consider, for instance, the furnace scene in Toy Story 3. I actually feared the toys would burn up the first time I saw that scene. I’d guess most people did. THAT is powerful conflict. Alas, Inside Out lacked that level of oomph.

2. A made-up world in a very, very real one

Like I said, Inside Out as a creative exercise absolutely enchanted me. Whereas I fawn over films like Monster’s Inc. for creating consistent rules in a completely made-up world, I now salute Pixar for creating a colorful and imaginative world and staying, as much as they could, within the painfully constricting boundaries of real life behavioral and emotional science. In other words, the ways of Riley’s mind necessarily had to abide by reality in order for her story to have any power. Pixar likely had to question themselves every step of the way, asking, “Does this analogy work?” or “Do our brains actually do that?” This could not have been easy, but given the magnitude of the challenge, they did a fabulous job.

3. Where does Reason live? 

Ok, so, fair warning, my philosophy major is coming out now. Inside Out is about emotions, but we know that our emotions alone do not govern our decisions. We deduce, we calculate, and we employ inductive reasoning in our ongoing quest to make something of this world. This begs the question, therefore, where or what is Reason in Inside Out? Is Reason an absent character? Does Reason live elsewhere, outside of “headquarters”? Or perhaps Reason is not its own being, but rather the product of the emotions working together to intuit Riley’s best choices? This last option is my best guess for how Pixar chose to tell this story. While it works to do this, and while the story was impressively simple and consistent, I for one really wanted the question of Reason to be addressed. It just wasn’t clear, and if I noticed it, others probably did too. Reason could have been another character to challenge the emotions’ convictions. Reason could have been the villain! Or even if Reason were not another character, the emotions could have engaged in more elaborate reasoning and thereby reinforce the message that no feeling or memory is ever one-dimensional.

4. I wanted more from Sadness. 

The character of Sadness is, well, a pushover. Because I don’t want to give away the ending, I will just say that I wish Sadness displayed a little more hutzpah and foreshadowed her value earlier in the film. Had she been written stronger from the beginning, she would have been a better counterpart for Joy, who is so Type A she comes off as a little obnoxious, however well-meaning. Had Sadness been stronger, their conversations would have been much more intriguing and their conflict much more subtle and complex.

5. Other assorted observations…

  • It makes me happy that all three predominant characters in this film are female, given the long, male-dominated lineup of Pixar films.
  • There were a few give-away expository lines that dropped like anvils. “These are the core memories. They make up Riley’s personality.” Um, Ok. I know you were up against a lot with this story, but surely there are ways of showing and not telling…?
  • I am very impressed with Pixar’s portrayal of Riley; I felt like she was a real person.
  • Why did Riley have both male and female emotions while her mother’s were all female and her father’s male? Also, why is the mother’s emotional leader Sadness and the father’s leader Anger? Does this mean anything? Are we supposed to conclude something from this?
  • I’m not sure how I feel about the “Abstract Thought” scene.
  • I wish Fear, Anger, and Disgust were more developed and nuanced, especially as they try to maintain control and “do what Joy would do.” When they try, they utterly fail, and I think we were supposed to find this funny. I, however, wanted to see more deliberation. When we feel angry, for instance, the feeling can vary from indignant to frustrated to confused. I know I’m asking for a lot, but it would have been nice to see more contemplative treatment of these nuances.
  • Is it at all possible to retrieve things from the giant pit of lost memories? Why can the emotions remember things that have gone into the pit when Riley cannot?

Again, I would love to hear your reflections on the film. Please share!

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2 Comments

Filed under Inspiration and Creativity, Running Commentary on whatever tickles the fancy, Video/Film

2 responses to “Five Reflections on Pixar’s Inside Out

  1. JS

    In reading various comments about the film, I’ve seen one particularly notable point discussed, which is the challenge that Pixar faced in making Riley’s real life story interesting enough to keep the audience engaged but not so interesting as to make it more appealing than Joy’s and Sadness’s journey. In reality, Inside Out is the same story being told from two different perspectives, the third person limited (us watching Riley) and a funny mashup of third person limited (us watching Joy and Sadness) and first person limited (the emotions’ decisions affect Riley in such a way that we know what Riley will do before she actually does it). I think they managed an acceptable, though not perfect, balance between the two. Riley is very believable and relatable, but her story is very, very simple. The story inside her head though, is much more nuanced.

    I agree that both Joy and Sadness could’ve had stronger relationship. I also agree that you never really felt like anything bad was going to happen to them which made it harder to connect to them overall. In an interview with Toy Story 3’s director Lee Unkrich, he discussed that, in the climactic garbage burning scene, Pixar had the unbelievable challenge of needing to convince the audience that yes, they might destroy these toys everyone loves. They accomplished that feat by having the toys hold hands and stare into the pit, going to their doom, but reconciled after their earlier split. Even if only for a second, you thought that it might be the end of Woody and Buzz. Those stakes were never really there for Joy and Sadness. Pixar tried, but I never felt there was a true existential threat that they were facing.

    That all said, it was an opus of storytelling, well done, and entertaining. Even if it’s not my favorite Pixar film to watch, it certainly deserves respect for its creativity and impressive tackling of one of the most complex subjects imaginable. Pete Docter is so cool.

    • ecapo

      I completely agree. While not perfect, the accomplishment is gargantuan. Oooo how I’d love to pick Pete Docter’s brain on the evolution of this story!

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