How do you feel?
If, in keeping with the premise of Inside Out, I had a head full of personified emotions, and if their activities had been on display as I watched Pixar’s latest film, the scene might look something like this:
- Everybody would be wearing V-necks, thick-rimmed glasses, and a head of bad bed hair
- Fear would be reclining with his legs up, because there’s little frightening about Inside Out, although that scene with the giant clown had “impending jump scare” written all over it (turns out, I had nothing to worry about. Can’t say the same for people who dislike clowns)
- Disgust would be similarly at bay, though she might be turning up her nose at the memory of past, inferior animated films (or films in general)
- Anger would be completely simmered down, because the film doesn’t wrong me in any way; on the contrary, it gets almost everything right
- Sadness would be upset, knowing the movie will eventually end
- Joy would have full rein over the controls
For Riley, the 11-year-old tween in whose head Inside Out spends most of its runtime, the Tinker Bell-esque Joy leads a motley crew of “emotions” on a quest to navigate their girl through life’s vicissitudes. Joy, of a more general kind, is likewise what guides us through this film – the joy of encountering a world so imaginatively designed, for one, but also of a story so wise that it pretty much does away, once and for all, with the commonly held fallacy that animated movies are meant for kids. Inside Out is a film for everyone, and it’s a film everyone should see.
Objectively, Riley’s story is simple: her family has just moved from suburban Minnesota to San Francisco, and she is faced with the anxiety of being in a new place and the heartbreak of abandoning an old one. But there are enormous amounts of subjectivity at play, and Inside Out details it all by actually getting inside her head. The movie’s stroke of genius – its first of many, anyway – is the way it fills the fantasyland of Riley’s headspace with clever analogues to known cognitive processes. For instance, memory is represented as orbs imprinted with the recording of a past event, and in a lovely touch, each orb is literally colored by an emotion (gold for joy, blue for sadness, etc.); we see not merely what Riley remembers, but how she remembers it. Given time, some of these orbs travel into Long Term Memory via tubes that siphon the memories across the “sky” of the mind like shooting stars. One of my favorite regions of this mindscape is the realm of “Abstract Thought,” in which new concepts are broken down into their component parts before comprehension can take place. Anything or anyone that enters is transformed into cubist figurines (yes, “abstract” art), before becoming “deconstructed” into two-dimensional shapes.
Because the opening scenes of Inside Out set the bar high for keeping the events in Riley’s head based in true-to-life cognitive phenomena, the film does feel a bit unfocused whenever it takes creative liberties at the “emotional” level at the cost of verisimilitude on Riley’s level. When the “train of thought” derails, for example, the film sets it up as an obstacle for Joy and Sadness, who are trying to find their way back to headquarters. But the effect of this vehicular accident remains at the “emotional” level, a factor of Joy and Sadness’ journey but not of Riley’s – her end of things is never shown. The film adopts a similarly unilateral perspective when the orb-containing shelves in Long Term Memory topple over. Also, despite the touching narrative arc granted Riley’s imaginary friend, the denouement of his story seems more the result of plot-level circumstance than an “accurate” chronicling of the fate of imaginary friends in general. I wince at having to use the word “accurate,” and indeed, few people expect the film to perfectly replicate a “scientific” model of the mind; on the contrary, the movie’s imaginative deviations is precisely what lends it idiosyncrasy. Still, the film set itself up as a fiction based in cognitive realities, a dream factory whose inventions are charming precisely because we still recognize them as reflecting inner states with which we are familiar. When the film strains the credibility of its world by exercising too much creative license (which, ironically, makes the film feel more conventional – a relatively straightforward adventure flick involving the “emotions” rather than the clever inside-and-out phenomenon the movie really is), the film weakens, if only slightly.
“Slightly” is key here, because despite its spasms of (relatively) muddled direction, Inside Out still cruises on its unbridled imagination and heart; any logical gaps form merely gentle bumps in the road. The film’s pattern of movement, which involves “cutting” back and forth from the emotions’ inward bustling to Riley’s resultant, outward expressions of feeling, creates fertile ground for everything from comedy to suspense to poignancy. Best is the movie’s beautiful third act, which, in classic Pixar fashion, finds hope without shying away from blunt emotional truth. Brave, Monsters University, and Cars 2 left many feeling disillusioned with the studio’s creative momentum (I’ve only seen the first of the three, but that film, for me, affirmed the popular opinion). With Inside Out, Pixar’s comeback may very well be under way.