I did a pretty aggressive catch-up day in the theatres the other day. I’ve been trying to do a better job of keeping up on current releases this year. So I managed to cross off a movie I’d been meaning to see for a while, Inside Out. After the overwhelmingly positive critical response I thought it would be an essential piece of viewing. Everyone adored Pixar’s latest film, including many critics I deeply respect. So it was definitely one I meant to see, and was hoping to enjoy.
I did enjoy it, for the most part. Although maybe not as much as most people. The movie follows Joy, mainly. Joy is, in this case, the anthropomorphization of the emotion. She works alongside Sadness, Anger, Fear, and Disgust inside the head of a growing girl named Riley. The concept lends itself well to Pixar’s patented brand of emotional beats and fantasy elements. Making your main characters and plot a metaphor for the emotional state of a growing girl is by default a pretty emotional idea, and Inside Out is at its best when it’s operating as a well thought out and articulated representation of Riley’s interior state.
Riley is a young girl who’s happy, silly, and likes hockey. In the world inside her head, Joy mainly takes the wheel, and most of her memories are tinged with the yellow glow that represents a joyous memory. There’s a lot of good thought put into the way this interior world operates. The different emotions can take the wheel and control Riley. This creates memories with distinct emotional notes that are shuffled off to long term memory at the end of the day. Every now and again, one special memory becomes a core memory, and defines a key part of Riley’s personality. All these aspects are represented by theme park like islands edging a great cliff. The cliffs are filled with the long term memory storage shelves, and the drop the islands stand over is the dumping abyss for forgotten memories. Headquarters, where the emotions work, is on a tower in the centre of this abyss.
So the memories work together, but generally Joy takes the lead and keeps Riley happy. Things start to change drastically for Riley though. When her family ups and moves her to Los Angeles, her world is thrown into turmoil. She’s lost her friends, her team, her home, and the moving days are ones filled with fear, disgust, and anger. Joy manages to calm things down (a representation of an external interaction between Riley and her mom). Riley’s excited when she heads off to her new school, but it’s here that things start to go wrong. Sadness begins to taint memories she touches, turning both literally and figuratively blue. When asked about her home town, Joy procures a joyful hockey memory, and Sadness touches it. Riley begins to cry, in class. This traumatic experience leads to the first ever sad core memory. Joy can’t allow that, and tries to keep the memory from entering the core system. This sucks her, Sadness, and all of Riley’s core memories into that tangled labyrinth of Riley’s mind.
It’s a clever plot, one that again elegantly exists as a metaphorical interpretation of Riley’s mental state. She endures a traumatic move that throws her being into question, and her psychological attempt to ground herself and rediscover the things she loves is represented by the missing Joy and Sadness trying to reinstate Riley’s defining memories and associated personality traits. It’s important that Joy and Sadness are gone, as the movie touches on the important interplay of those two emotions.
Their trek through Riley’s mind allows for further visualized exploration of the girl’s psychology. They travel through long term memory, where they meet the blue collar workers who pick which memories to forget, and occasionally send a gum jingle up to headquarters to entertain themselves. They meet Riley’s abandoned imaginary friend, a story element a lot of people seemed to find more poignant than I did. Maybe you need to have had an imaginary friend? Or maybe because the character never entertained me? The imaginary friend leads them through the corridor of abstract thought into imagination land, an area populated by fictional boyfriends, cloud-people, and forests of french fries.
Meanwhile Riley’s personality traits crumble as she lashes out at the world around her. Incapable of feeling Joy or Sadness she responds to everything with Anger, Disgust, or Fear, making her bitter and emotionally stunted. As she continues operating in this limited emotional spectrum, she becomes increasingly emotionally damaged. It’s that special brand of heavy Pixar emotionality as the whole plot, and it works really well. Until the few moments where the movie jarring eschews this style, but more on that later.
Sadness, Joy, and Bing-Bong, the imaginary friend, hitch a ride on the train of thought to get back to headquarters. When Riley’s sleep shuts the train off, they try to wake her up through her dreams (represented as actors staging shows inside Riley’s head). This leads them to Riley’s subconscious, where, among other things, a clown that scared her one birthday party lives. This monster clown follows them back to the dream theatre and scares Riley awake. Eventually there’s a grim scene in the abyss of forgotten memories that sees Bing-Bong sacrifice himself to save Joy, and by extension Riley.
At this point the worried and confused emotions remaining in Riley’s head have activated an idea (a light bulb screwed into Riley’s console). The idea is that Riley’s core memories were all in her old home, so she should get back there and make more. In other words Riley, scared, hurt, and confused, decides to run away. It’s high emotional stakes for the girl, and when Joy finds out about this plan she realizes she’s running out of time to save Riley. More importantly though, an introspective moment among Riley’s forgotten memories makes Sadness’s import clear to Joy, and she realizes the depressing blob she reticently brought with her is necessary for Riley’s well being.
The sound you’re about to hear is my whip hitting a dead horse, but this metaphorical representation of Riley’s mind is pretty brilliant. Up until this point in the movie it’s been intricately and powerfully integrated, with the relationship between the interior and the exterior being a clearly defined one-to-one ratio. Nothing happens in the mind world that isn’t a clear representation of some sort of piece of psychological activity occurring in Riley’s mind. Which is what makes the mind world part of the finale all the more egregious. Everything about this stretch of the film feels wrong, right down to the film’s only pop-culture joke (a Chinatown reference no less) being shoe-horned into what should be the film’s emotional climax. Most distressing, however, is the ultimate solution. The way that Joy and Sadness get back to headquarters in time to save Riley. The solution is almost violently divorced from any significant meaning or metaphor. Before this point, even gags like Sadness lying on her back, stroking passing memories had a meaning (Riley’s understanding of events changing as she grows older, coupled with a sense of nostalgia for her old home). The climactic solution the film presents, however, is a piece of goofy slapstick. I personally found that change incredibly problematic, as the emotional height of the film seems like a strange time to ignore the whole central premise and become a goofy kids movie.
It’s even more jarring when immediately followed by Riley’s return to her parents, quite possibly the most emotionally affecting moment in the whole film. This moment leads into a big change in Riley’s mind, the ability to have memories tinged by multiple emotions, a sign of increased maturity on Riley’s part. It’s clever and touching, and it makes the moments before seem weirdly unlike Pixar. They haven’t exactly been big on making those sorts of “kid movie” concessions lately, let alone at such inopportune times (think about the climax of Toy Story Three).
The other small problem I have with the film is the design. The mind world is decidedly less original and interesting than I would like. I miss the functional and interesting design of the fantasy world in Monster’s Inc. Inside Out’s world is perhaps a little too toyetic. I wanted a more original, expressive vision. It’s not bad, just a little bland. Like the climax, it feels like it could’ve based itself around the metaphorical concept in more interesting and dynamic ways.
It’s a good movie, all in all. Maybe not the studio’s crowning accomplishment the way some people have said, but it’s still an excellent film filled with clever ideas and touching scenes. I just wish they’d directly engaged the core concept 10% more than they did. That simple change would have pushed the film into an entirely different stratum of excellence, one it creeps up on but ultimately doesn’t have the courage to really delve into.