not in our stars, but in ourselves
Yes, I’m a month or so late. That’s not bad for me, all things considered.
Inside Out is, in some ways, a very simple story: an 11-year-old girl moves from Minnesota to San Francisco, and experiences the kind of emotional upheaval you might expect in a girl of that age in those circumstances. The girl, Riley, isn’t the star of the show, however. Her emotions are. Specifically, five of the most predominant emotions (according to writer/director Pete Docter): Joy (Amy Poehler), Sadness (Phyllis Smith), Anger (Lewis Black), Disgust (Mindy Kaling), and Fear (Bill Hader). Joy is the first emotion to appear in Riley’s mind, just after she’s born. There’s a button on a console; Joy presses it; Riley giggles happily as her delighted parents coo over her. The other four show up later – but Joy considers herself the one in charge. (Joy isn’t at all dissimilar to Poehler’s most famous character, Leslie Knope – almost a textbook definition of a benevolent dictator.) Everything is going along just fine until, well, the move. Moving to a new place is a disruptive event for any kid, and especially for Riley – who has to leave behind her friends, her hockey team, her nice bedroom, her big backyard, and everything that made her happy before, all in favor of a grim little hovel in an alley in San Francisco. Joy tries desperately to keep Riley happy, but Sadness – whom Joy has shoved aside for most of their tenure together – keeps interfering. After a series of cartoon shenanigans lead Joy and Sadness – and all of Riley’s core memories, which have formed her personality up to now – to being “filed away” in Riley’s long-term memory, the three remaining emotions do their best to guide Riley, all while Joy and Sadness try their best to get from Riley’s memory back to “headquarters,” where they can interact with the stimuli Riley encounters and interprets.
Granted, this is a children’s movie. Richard Brody, an apparent grump who hates joy (and Joy), was peeved that Inside Out wasn’t as complex or nuanced as a Terence Malick film; while it is full of bright colors and simplifications of neuroscience, it is attempting to understand the human mind (specifically the child’s mind) in greater depth and detail than most other films aimed at adults. (Also, if you’re taking your kids to see Malick films, God help you.) The way the film boils down core emotional responses to five personified characters, each located in “headquarters”; the way it presents memories as colored spheres with brief Vine-style video clips replaying in an endless loop; the way core memories form Riley’s personality; the way older memories are stored in labyrinthine libraries towards the back of the mind; the way faded and no longer necessary memories are dumped into an enormous gulf, from which they’ll never return; the way the subconscious teems with “intolerable ideas” liable to burst forth at any time from their indifferently guarded basement dungeon; all of this is not only creative from a visual standpoint, but reasonably accurate in terms of what we understand of human psychology. (A pooh-poohing neuroscientist from Northeastern University argues that emotions don’t function as blobs at all, and it’s borderline irresponsible to present them as such, but this isn’t a movie about neuroscience.) This review from the Los Angeles Review of Books correctly notes that emotion – irrational and primeval as it may be – governs our minds far more than reason – logical and linear and far more recently developed. We are animals. We think in images, smells, tastes, sounds. Emotions rule our reactions more than we might care to admit, and Inside Out gets that exactly right. Indeed, the more logical faculties of Riley’s mind are presented as pieces dropped off by the “train of thought” – full of boxes of facts and opinions (which always get mixed up). It may not be perfect as a psychological primer – but it’s not bad.
There are things I wish the film had explored in more depth, even if that would have been an impossibly tall task for a Pixar movie. Namely, I wish it had either explained more clearly if and how these emotional revolutions related to the onset of adolescence – and which were related solely to the move. Of course traumatic events can reset the wiring in your mind. Sometimes you can recover (somewhat); sometimes, you can’t. Inside Out shows Riley’s “islands of personality” – each attached to a core memory – disintegrating into the enormous gulf of what she’s forgotten once she’s in San Francisco. She doesn’t want to goof around with her father, or play hockey, or talk to her old friends, or stay with her parents, or tell the truth. These are all understandable, regrettable reactions and personality changes in the face of a traumatic experience. But would these same things have happened if Riley were 6 instead of 11? Or 17? Or 25? As any reader of Lolita knows, the age of 11 is a tough one in any child’s life, beset by hormonal changes and ensuing emotional chaos. It makes sense that pre-pubescent Riley would be ruled by Fear, Anger, and Disgust – but in Inside Out, it has nothing to do with any other changes in her body, and everything to do with changes in her situation. It could have been interesting to examine those two traumas – one inevitable, one inflicted – or simply to pick one and run with it. Inside Out does cheat, just a little bit, at the end: the emotions are given a newer, more detailed console, with a wider range of ways to express and control Riley’s reactions; and, upon noticing a big red button, Disgust asks, “What’s ‘pooberty’?” Talk about a gun on the wall in the fifth act that didn’t go off in the third.
Inside Out is a sweet movie, one that does an admirable job of illustrating the mind. Too many films get caught up in that naughty Freudian unconscious (Spellbound, Inception, Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, etc.) without really explaining much of anything. Cinema is a dream, dreams are unconscious, let’s make a movie about dreams, okay. (Not to imply that I haven’t enjoyed those movies.) Inside Out sets itself the much more difficult, and much less frequently attempted, task of understanding how we tick in our conscious life. And it succeeds, mostly. You can experience Malickian jouissance by looking up at some sunlight streaming through trees or something. You can get in touch with your own sense of Joy in Inside Out.
N.B. There was quite a bit of buzz about this being one of the best Pixar films ever. I think that was mostly a reaction to recent computer animated films being lackluster, either commercially or substantially (*cough* FROZEN *cough*). It’s a good movie. The best Pixar movie is WALL-E. Fight me.