Released 2015. Directed by Pete Docter. Screenplay by Meg LeFauve & Josh Cooley and Pete Docter. Starring Amy Poehler, Phyllis Smith, Richard Kind, Lewis Black, Kaitlyn Dias.
Significant spoilers follow, including many of the best jokes and the ending, so if you wish to avoid anger I recommend you see Inside Out before reading on. (I also talk about the end of Toy Story 3, but if you haven’t seen that then I assume you have never seen a film in your life.)
As a child, my favourite comic strip was The Numskulls. The idea that tiny maniacal homunculi populated and drove human bodies was captivating and wild, tweaked my interest in science, and made for thousands of great jokes. Now Pixar, the undisputed master of family-friendly cinema, has turned its attention to the same idea. Colour me excited.
Inside Out follows the story of an eleven-year-old girl named Riley (Kaitlyn Dias), from the perspective of the anthropomorphised emotions that work in her Headquarters. Literally. Their place of work is inside her mind. Fear (Bill Hader), Disgust (Mindy Kaling) and Anger (Lewis Black) play their parts, each fighting over and taking turns at the control panel of Riley’s behaviour, influencing her reactions to real-world stimuli and generating legions of memories. These memories, small glass balls with touchscreen interfaces, play short clips of Riley’s life behind the tint of the emotion with which they’re associated (green for disgust, red for anger and so on). Most are sent to storage through memory tubes while Riley sleeps each night, but for a hallowed handful of yellow “core memories” that shape her personality, giving rise to enormous “personality islands” in the landscape of her mind. These core memories come from the emotion that runs the show, Joy (Amy Poehler), a sickeningly upbeat lightbulb of a woman who tries to put a positive spin on absolutely everything, including Riley’s family’s move from their native Minnesota to a dingy, creaky house in San Francisco. In so doing she deliberately blocks Sadness (Phyllis Smith), a timid little blue drip whose purpose nobody can discern, from having any influence, giving her makework jobs to do such as reading the manuals to Riley’s brain and standing in a small circle, all the while pretending that Sadness ought to be having a great time.
I do not like Joy.
Which is why, when Sadness starts touching memories, turning joyful yellow ones an irreversible blue, and pressing buttons at the control panel, creating a never-before-seen sad core memory, I was really rather pleased that Joy was finally not getting her own way. (Admittedly, Sadness doesn’t seem to have much of a reason for mucking about – at least, none that she’s capable of articulating – and that in itself is rather infuriating. The emotion I most enjoyed spending time with during Inside Out‘s early moments was Anger.) After an altercation, Riley’s core memories are removed from the cabinet in which they live (switching off her personality), sucked through a memory tube along with Joy and Sadness, and dropped in the rest of Riley’s mind, a labyrinth of long-term memory and thought processes. Joy, realising that all the manuals she made Sadness read must have sunk in somehow, decides that Sadness does have a purpose, and that purpose is to navigate for Joy as she sets off to return to Headquarters. At last, we have our problem to overcome, and it’s Pixar as usual.
The ideas that fuel the jokes of Inside Out are many and great. You’ll struggle to see a film that is bursting with creativity, observations and possibilities as much as this. It’s overflowing with gags, the premise of the film lending itself, as was the case with The Numskulls, to puns and witty moments, but they’re not as insubstantial as that might sound. The structure to some of the jokes derives from our expectations of how people typically behave in various different roles, be they children or parents, male or female, and applying to those behaviours the idea that they are in some sense controlled more than they actually are, the subjects of debate between several inner monologues. The dinner scene is the best example of this, as we see inside the Headquarters of Riley’s parents – her mother’s (Diane Lane) emotions are strategically attempting to involve her father (Kyle MacLachlan) in the discussion, but his emotions are watching a football match and notice far too late that they’re being signalled. The blank look on his face is given hilarious context by the panic going on in his Headquarters. Another source for comedy is similar but different – the ways in which we think and behave internally are given comic explanations. For instance, an old advertising jingle gets repeatedly stuck in Riley’s head not accidentally, but because a couple of workers who maintain the vast supply of long-term memories keep sending it to Headquarters, and I quote, “for no reason”. (Anger’s reaction is not unexpected but is incredibly funny. Lewis Black could not have been better cast.)
Suffice to say that Inside Out is genuinely laugh-out-loud, its sense of humour keen and its desire to simply tell jokes en masse an utter delight that’s been missing from Pixar’s work since Monsters, Inc. and Toy Story 2.
It’s a problem that it’s difficult to feel invested in Riley, given that we see her as an easily manipulated product of her competing emotions, and it’s ultimately not too clear who we’re being asked to root for. Really, the emotional fulcrum of Inside Out is Joy’s journey from self-important boss to understanding team player, but through voice-over she tells us more than once about her love for Riley. Well, I like Riley too, and when I see her interact with her parents, the strength of their relationship is a pleasure, but it feels like a separate story from her emotions’. On the one hand, you’ve got Riley and her parents moving to San Francisco. On the other, you’ve got Joy and Sadness lost and trying to get home. Both stories are compelling, and both sets of characters are easy to emotionally connect to, but there’s a divide between them that Inside Out fails to bridge. Joy could have told me as much as she liked that she loved Riley. It’s not something I ever believed or invested in.
A character that Joy and Sadness meet amongst the library of long-term memory, Bing Bong (Richard Kind, in more inspired casting), is an interesting one, and not just because he’s part cat, part elephant, part candy floss and part dolphin. He’s Riley’s former imaginary friend, and his story neatly and unexpectedly recapitulates the main thrust of the Toy Story series, particularly Toy Story 3. (Indeed, there is a central similarity between those films and Inside Out, in that the main characters exist to take care of a child, but Inside Out isn’t that keen on pursuing that theme with the central cast.) Just as the toys in the Toy Story films stewarded Andy through childhood into young adulthood, and had to accept being eventually passed on to a young girl in order to do it all again, Bing Bong, Riley’s first friend, is required to sacrifice himself for her benefit. He and Joy are trapped in the Memory Dump, a wasteland of faded memories which are treated as landfill, forgotten and decaying. In helping Joy escape from the Memory Dump so that she can complete her quest, Bing Bong needs to condemn himself to it, resulting in his being forgotten. It’s a remarkably moving scene and in some respects it’s more affecting than the equivalent conclusion of the toys’ story, despite the fact that we’ve known Bing Bong for a fraction of the time – the toys, at least, were able to live, but Bing Bong cannot be given away, and his sacrifice is necessary if Riley is ever to regain her personality, making it much more significant. I think it is no coincidence that Bing Bong’s is the most affecting tale in Inside Out.
The central problem with Inside Out is the flimsiness of its world. While inside Riley’s mind, the filmmakers can do whatever they like in order to engineer scenes and put the characters where they want them. Let me be clear: nothing occurs that destroys the internal logic, there’s no setting up of a certain thing that can’t happen only for it to later happen with no justification. On the contrary, so little is set up that the world doesn’t satisfy. That allows, I sense, for the film’s incredible creativity and playfulness, but it does make the characters’ struggle less meaningful. Try to walk back to Headquarters over a precarious bridge? The personality island from which it leads is falling apart! Let’s hop on the Train of Thought then! (I don’t know what the Train of Thought does other than drive around, as it’s not been established, but I do enjoy the pun!) Oh no, another personality island is crumbling for a different reason and it’s hit the train! Now we’re stuck in the Memory Dump, from which there’s no escape! Except for if we try to jump out, of course! Without establishing firm foundations, the filmmakers are free to introduce new ideas all over the place. On reflection, I wouldn’t change it, as I do believe the film ultimately benefits from that freedom, but I don’t think the plot and internal logic can be defended on the grounds of how well they’re constructed, and that is disappointing, if unavoidable.
Pixar, in particular, can generally be relied upon to build a world from bricks, allowing creativity to occur inside without any worries about the plot failing to satisfy. Inside Out is a departure from that, whether deliberately or not, and the flightiness with which its world is constructed is a double-edged sword.
I always disliked the idea that Pixar’s films have as many jokes for adults as they do for children. That’s an unofficial slogan that’s followed the studio around since the first Toy Story, twenty years ago. The problem I have with it is that it suggests that the jokes aren’t for everybody. Certainly, there are those that children are less likely to understand, but I never liked the implication that it was about giving the parents something to enjoy that was separate from what was provided for their children, as though they simply wouldn’t tolerate sitting there otherwise. (I accept, they might not, and the vigour with which the slogan was adopted suggests so, but it’s quite a cynical implication nonetheless.) However, following a screening of Inside Out that had me seated amongst an audience of parents and their kids, I’m suspicious of whether the film is meant for children at all.
Inside Out plays with clever ideas and adult observations with reckless and exhilarating abandon. (That is, adult meaning grown-up as opposed to X-rated, although the joke about the bear made me sit bolt upright, roar with laughter, swim in amazement that I had just heard that in a Pixar film, and imagine the children revisiting the film in twenty years and, upon hearing it again, reacting just as I did.) The premise isn’t overly intellectual – if you’ve read The Numskulls you’ll be familiar with just how elegantly idiotic and manic it can be – but it allows for a surprisingly complex illustration of the philosophy of the self, digressions into the subconscious, jokes about art movements and filmmaking, observations about the inner monologues of adults and a variety of other areas that I suspect might escape a pre-pubescent audience altogether. The scene in Abstract Thought, one of the film’s most memorable, refers to some big, big philosophical and artistic ideas in the most casual way you could imagine, and, like the bear joke, it’s slightly unbelievable that it’s in there. (How many kids’ films have you seen in which a character worries about “nonobjective fragmentation”?) I think it’s plausible that Inside Out will speak to adults more than it will to children – and, at the risk of sounding like a snob, it might even be too much for most of those adults. A good number of the ideas it plays with are richer than you’d expect from most family films (although Pixar does have history here – look at the existential, Bergman-esque opening to The Incredibles). Inside Out could easily catch people off-guard.
(I had the same suspicion with Wall-E, which I saw amongst another audience of young children, that the children simply weren’t following the film or finding it funny. Take this with an entire salt grinder, because I’m a twenty-six-year-old with no children, so this suspicion is poorly-formed and no doubt easily dismantled, but I really wonder how well children follow and invest in films. I wish I could remember watching films as a child, but I can’t.)
The messages of Inside Out are worthy, and, to the film’s credit, properly built in to the premise rather than tacked on. As mentioned above, the focus of the film is Joy learning to appreciate the value of others, but while she does of course achieve that, and end up sharing the responsibility of controlling Riley evenly, the film has much more to say than that. Its messages aren’t delivered just by the characters’ interactions, but the meanings behind their identities. It’s about the value of sadness, that it has a proper place amongst the other, more exciting and enjoyable, emotions. It’s about how you can make yourself sad easily and on your own, but it takes honestly allowing yourself to be sad, and embracing the help of others, to bring you joy. (A somewhat troublesome message, given how sadness, depression and loneliness can work in a vicious cycle – and it’s not always that easy to find other people to help.) And it’s about emotional complexity. The film spends a long time teaching you that memories are associated with single emotions and colours – playing with dad is joyful and yellow, tasting broccoli is disgusting and green – and a subtlety to the conclusion that came as a pleasant surprise to me was the new-found ability for memories, including core memories, to encompass different emotions. This twist is arguably possible due to the lack of internal logic I earlier decried – we only believe that memories contain single emotions because we’re never shown anything different, that’s just the way it is, so you could argue that this multiple-emotion capability is something else that the film has just invented on a whim – but deriving from the lesson learned by Joy, it is entirely justifiable. Metaphorically, the film’s conclusion sees Riley emotionally maturing after something between a mood swing and a full mental breakdown (although the big button marked ‘PUBERTY’ is left unpressed). A final shot of Riley’s core emotions, earlier dominated by yellow, is now a kaleidoscope of the five emotions, the memories combining colours like marbles. It’s not as affecting an ending as you might expect – the bittersweet final half-hour of Toy Story 3 and the Bing Bong scene far outmatch the hand-holding happiness of the final moments here – but Inside Out left me with the warm feeling I wanted.
I would love to be able to recommend Inside Out whole-heartedly, but I can’t quite do so. I recommend it most-heartedly, and it may quickly become one of my favourite Pixar films, and the fact that I have reservations should not deter you from seeing it. It offers huge laughs, authentic drama, outrageous creativity and several terrific and memorable scenes. The structure on which everything hangs is disappointingly weak – certainly not at Pixar’s high standard – but that failing might well be the key to Inside Out‘s unique virtues amongst the Pixar canon.
Nice take on the film! I’ve seen it three times now – all three in the company of my five-year-old daughter (who didn’t get a lot of it, but enjoyed it enough to ask to go back), and once also in the company of my two-year-old son (who is just into Anger). I know exactly what you mean about the film being a bit sketchy regarding the set-up of Riley’s brain. I didn’t have the same problem you did, though, about emotionally connecting with Riley.
Have you read Paul Ekman’s blog about the film. Ekman (*the* facial expressions and universal human emotions scientist/guru) has been a Pixar consultant for years, but this is their film that bears his stamp most strongly. His comments about reducing the key emotions down from seven to five are interesting, but most interesting is his point that Sadness shouldn’t be a dumpy, dowdy presence. My own fussy pedantic thought was, ‘How do the minds of Joy, Sadness etc work?’ Is there an infinite regress of homunculi?!
Here’s the link! https://www.paulekman.com/facial-expressions/the-science-of-inside-out/
I know Paul Ekman’s work a little bit, but I wasn’t aware of his particular relationship to Pixar. Thanks for the link. I will read it later, when I am supposed to be hard at work.