Directed by: Pete Docter and Ronaldo Del Carmen
Premise: An animated film that supposes that inside of each person’s head is a control room where five characters who represent our emotions—Joy, Fear, Anger, Disgust, and Sadness—operate our mind and manage our personality and memory. In the head of eleven year old Riley, Joy takes the lead until a malfunction strands her and Sadness outside of the control room. They have to make their way back to headquarters for Riley to live an emotionally balanced life.
What Works: Since the premiere of Toy Story in 1995 Pixar has been on top of the animated field in American cinema. However, in this decade the studio’s output has begun to slip. In the last five years Pixar has only generated one original film, 2012’s Brave. While Toy Story 3 was a masterpiece, Monsters University and especially Cars 2 signaled that the studio was in decline and that it was prioritizing merchandising opportunities over storytelling. With the release of Inside Out Pixar has gotten itself back on track with a film that sits comfortably alongside the studio’s best work such as Up and WALL-E. This movie exemplifies several of Pixar’s strengths. Among them, the studio frequently defies the typical narrative structures of Hollywood filmmaking. Toy Story did not have a conventional protagonist or antagonist and Brave reimagined the Disney princess without a romantic subplot or a love song. The narrative of Inside Out is reminiscent of Toy Story in that it does not have a villain and the characters are set on a quest that requires them to reassess what they want and the way in which they relate to one another. Another of Pixar’s strengths featured in Inside Out is a willingness to take some risks. Most of the family movies being made today underestimate the audience and there is an unwillingness to confront youth with stories of trauma; if Bambi were made today it’s inconceivable that studio executives would allow the mother to die. Inside Out puts its characters in serious jeopardy and requires sacrifice in order for them to achieve their goal. That sacrifice is where the movie gets its dramatic power and it’s what makes the film so resonant. Inside Out is also a great example of what animation can do; a lot of Hollywood animated pictures, including most of Pixar’s feature films, essentially duplicate physical reality but there are scenes in Inside Out that go into abstraction and the filmmakers take advantage of the animated form to do something unique. Inside Out’s mature storytelling and unique visuals distinguish it in the animation genre. This is a much more sophisticated story both in its ideas but also in the nuances of its characters than most films coming out of Hollywood, whether animated or live action.
What Doesn’t: At the risk of overanalyzing the metaphor, there are some problems with Inside Out’s concept. Firstly, the film is quite limited in the emotions that it characterizes. Researchers have suggested various models for the way in which human emotion can be envisioned and categorized with some emotions emerging over time. When Inside Out goes into the minds of adults they are basically identical to the headspace of an eleven year old. Secondly, and more troublingly, Inside Out portrays people as ruled by their emotions. As the conceit of this film would have it, there is no buffer between our emotions and our behavior and no other part of the mind checks our emotional states. But in life our emotional reactions are siphoned through reason and logic as well as social expectations and other motivations and desires. The vision of the human mind offered by Inside Out is insufficient in capturing the fully complexity of our emotions and behavior. That said, the metaphor simplifies the human mind for dramatic reasons that are quite reasonable and appropriate for its family audience.
Bottom Line: Inside Out is one of the better films to come out of Pixar and it is certainly the studio’s best feature in several years. This is the rare animated film that transcends the family audience. Even if the conceit is simplified, Inside Out is beautifully made and tells an engaging story.
Episode: #550 (July 12, 2015)