In the otherwise-normal world Pixar has flipped Inside Out, you’re never in charge of any of those troublesome emotions; it’s the emotions themselves that are in charge of you. “Joy” (Amy Poehler), “Sadness” (The Office veteran Phyllis Smith), “Fear” (Bill Hader), “Anger” (a very appropriately cast Lewis Black), and “Disgust” (Mindy Kaling, another Office veteran) are tiny humanoid entities messily smashing buttons and pushing levers in a control room where your brain would usually be, helping you respond to whatever happens around you with the appropriate emotion. Not that the right emotion always touches the right control, but that’s just part of the job.
To most, this is a uniquely adorable way of representing to children how their feelings work, and how those feelings influence the decisions they make in life. To 12-year old me, despite understanding that context full well, and clearly recognizing that it’s all within the context of a heartfelt Disney movie, the real implications of this concept kinda kept me up at night.
I don’t really see anybody else having these concerns, so the control panel in my own mind could’ve just have a major malfunction or two, but back then, my only real takeaway from Inside Out was that you had no control over any single thing you did, and that that’s all up to some annoying idiots lodged in your skull who barely know what they’re doing. God forbid anything happens to one (or, if you’re really unlucky, multiple) of these idiots, because your mental well-being—and even your most prized memories—could very well be destroyed. For good.
Even if Disney wasn’t secretly aiming to make a psychological horror movie for tots, I really can’t help being reminded of Being John Malkovich (more specifically, the ending of Being John Malkovich) whenever giving this core gimmick more than a passing thought. Out of all the movies to nearly give me a full-fledged existential crisis, it’s still laughable that this would be the one, but the first scene of Monsters Inc. did seem unspeakably terrifying when I was an infant, so maybe childhood trauma’s just a thing with Pixar.
OK, all this makes my overall opinion of Inside Out sound far harsher than it is. It absolutely should be commended for, with the help of real-life psychologists Paul Ekman [SPOILERS IN LINKED ARTICLE] and Dacher Keltner, sensitively simplifying complicated aspects of our minds without ever talking down to its young target audience. Emotions are, as we’ve already gone over, made into easily distinguishable folks with full emotional spectrums of their very own; memories are smooth glass balls whizzed up into “long-term memory” through impossibly clean tubes; and personality traits are made into individual floating islands like “Family Island”, “Honesty Island” (the existence of which is conflicted by later events; those involve spoilers, so they’ll be discussed after my rating’s given), and “Goofball Island”.
There’s even odd areas like “Imagination Land” (not to be confused with “Imaginationland”, an Emmy-winning South Park episode preceding Inside Out by eight years), a comfy little pad decked out with giant french fries and talking clouds, and a self-explanatory movie studio by the name of “Dream Productions” (not to be confused with Dream Corp LLC, an Adult Swim show Inside Out preceded by one year), complete with a “reality distortion filter” ensuring your inner flights of fancy don’t seem too fanciful.
On the flip side (and again, this could also only be an issue for me), whenever we’re given a glimpse at the emotions in anybody’s head besides our central protagonist’s, they mostly talk and act the exact same way. It’s a confusing counterpoint to the simple “blue girl makes you sad, red guy makes you angry” frame of logic we’ve easily come to understand by this point, particularly for younger audiences who need simple rules to latch onto the surreal universe they’re confronted with.
It really doesn’t help that Inside Out’s marketing emphasized this variety of inner perspectives outside said protagonist’s, yet in the actual movie, we’re only ever treated to them in a couple isolated sequences (and as a mildly amusing credit cookie). Sure, cutting back and forth between dozens of little mind minions at their individual stations would’ve been confusing in its own right, but it also could’ve helped the film’s story be more creatively (and entertainingly) structured.
Not that the story we’re given is boring per se, yet considering the wacky concepts and ideas we’re sold on from the marketing, it does feel a tad too standard. In summary, the aforementioned protagonist is Riley, an 11-year old girl whose life is upended when her family moves from Minnesota to San Francisco. Despite how irritating the plucky adolescent’s current situation is (she’s forced to sleep on the floor, Dad always seems to be busy talking with movers, the local pizza is broccoli-flavored for some reason), those emotion folks do a pretty impressive job keeping her positivity in check… except when Sadness keeps touching her “core memories” for increasingly ludicrous reasons.
This isn’t a bad way to represent Riley’s fond vision of the past being tainted by her tough current situation, but by the fifth time we hear Smith mumble “Sorry… I just wanted to hold it…” or “Sorry… this one looked a little crooked…” (don’t fact-check me on that), it also bordered on a flat-out punchline. Other events—both in Riley’s mind and elsewhere—destabilize her further, as reflected by how depressingly drab every corner of her new house is.
While no other part of Out’s outer universe is as dreary as that particular house, it still intentionally looks duller than any of the scenes eschewing it, which are all eye-poppingly vivid colors and playfully silly imagery. Although talking about Inside Out’s visual style without devolving into the same old “Pixar’s animation is the best!”-isms is a little daunting, I do have to hand it to them, along with the very convincing cast (had just the right person not been cast to play just the right emotion, the story would’ve been broken at its very center), for making two entirely different worlds seem equally believable for audiences of all ages, no matter how questionable the exact logistics of the imaginary one may be.
After all, given my rather unusual complaints near the beginning of this review, it admittedly could be hard to tell whether or not kids should really be watching Inside Out. I think they should, if only to perhaps better understand their own changing emotions. Have a check-in with your youngest ones before and afterwards to make sure they’re not walking away with the wrong impressions, either of themselves or others.
Weighing Inside Out‘s strengths against its shortcomings (particularly my negative personal experiences with it) made deciding between a 6 and 7 difficult. For me, it really came down to which rating fit the overarching tone of my review more, and I think that rating’s a 6. Had the story not been so difficult to digest without mentally attaching such creepy connotations to it, my rating would more likely be a 7.
QUICK PERSONAL UPDATE: It’s ironic that a few months ago, I said “I hope to be publishing these [articles] at a more frequent rate than “maybe-one-review-per-month” when that’s exactly what wound up happening. Don’t worry, the site’s not dead: this annoying delay’s just a result of (a me being lazy as usual and b) things being pretty hectic around my house for personal reasons. More is to come.
Long after Honesty Island is back up and running, Riley never seems to fess up about stealing her mom’s credit card to purchase online bus tickets back to Minnesota, then hopping on that bus for a good ten minutes (BY HERSELF, I might add) before Joy brings her back to her senses.
Technically, such reckless actions are more Anger’s fault than Riley’s, but since they’re what caused that particular island to even crumble in the first place, wouldn’t she only be able to (unknowingly) reconstruct it by telling the truth? Why even write an Honesty Island into your script to begin with if, not counting the sequence in which all the islands are introduced, it’s literally never going to be put to any good use? (What’s preventing either of her parents from noticing those charges, anyway?)
On an equally worrisome note, Riley’s “train of thought” (a literal train, at that) is irreparably destroyed at one point. It’s very clearly established as the main object making all her conscious thought processes go, yet she carries on just fine without it. Maybe a “train of doing without thinking” sprung up offscreen.