Inside Out (2015): Pixar Goes to Therapy

Our Take Two column offers second opinions and alternative angles on films and TV series reviewed elsewhere on Motion State. Head here for our original review of Inside Out.

The people have spoken. Original, well-written content is what they want, and they want it now! Down with all of these cliched remakes! I speak on everyone’s behalf when I say–what’s that? Ex-squeeze me? Jurassic World, of all movies, is breaking every box office record? Well then.

It’s hard to express how that makes me feel. I could scream and gag and cry and fall into a deep depression. And there’s no movie that can fix me. What’s that? Another off-screen interjection? I should look no further than Inside Out? So there’s hope after all…
So much has already been said about Inside Out‘s strengths. So much, in fact, that I attempted to dredge up the film’s weaknesses, any at all, as a counterbalance to all the praise I’ve read. But alas, (that’s a negative word, isn’t it? This is supposed to be good news) I found practically nothing. That alone should suffice as a review. I loved this movie. But more important than any review, of its handling of abstract ideas or the depth of its various characters, is a look at how it can help people. Because more than any movie I’ve seen in recent memory, this is a story that can truly benefit its audience.

There’s an unspoken rule that animated films (for kids [American ones, anyway]) need to teach some sort of life lesson. Don’t expect tidy conclusions from Fritz the Cat or The Triplets of Belleville. But for a great majority of cartoons, the lessons are grandiose and generic, like Be True to Yourself, and frankly impractical, like Believe And You Can Do Anything. What’s interesting about Inside Out is that it’s not predicated on a big Capital-Letter Adage. The lesson isn’t some message that you better take at face value just because Disney said so. It’s about experience.

The movie starts with Riley’s birth, a wide-eyed innocent babe, which also brings the birth of her first Emotion: Joy. At first, Joy has no idea how to run the controls that operate Riley. Then Riley cries and Sadness appears. And with each new Emotion, they learn how to run the controls (sometimes as a team and sometimes not so much), and Riley learns how to navigate the world. Already the story sets itself apart with this process of trial and error. Riley will make mistakes and fall, figuratively, to deep, dark depths, while the Emotions do so literally, in order to learn difficult lessons. It won’t be about Riley’s struggle to believe in herself against all odds because, well, that’s just not how the world works.

Not that every Pixar film is a blueprint for “how the world works,” but Inside Out is easily the closest that the studio has cleaved to reality. Even the Emotions, who are easily Pixar’s cartooniest characters, are also somehow their most relatable. This goes to almost uncomfortable lengths in the character of Sadness who’s both hilarious and, well, very diagnosably depressed. The Emotions’ cutesy designs initially garnered groans from some people, including myself. But they help give life to abstract concepts, while also contrasting against the subdued, realistic palette of Riley’s outside world.

If the sequences inside the mind are aesthetically gorgeous for their visionary newness, the real world scenes are gorgeous for their warm familiarity. At times I was reminded of Terrence Malick’s The Tree of Life (that must be a first for Inside Out reviews). Riley’s life is both intimate and universal, like Tree of Life‘s hyper-detailed suburban neighborhood. Riley and Jack’s (Sean Penn) memories are suspended in picturesque time, nostalgic yet always tinged with sadness. But Malick’s film raises more questions than it answers. Flashbacks only confuse and depress the grownup Jack. With Inside Out, Pete Docter set out to actually make sense of his young daughter’s mood swings.

Movies that deal with memory and the subconscious, like The Tree of Life or Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, usually focus on their impalpable, ephemeral qualities. They stress the impossibility of quantifying and understanding our minds. But the internal world of Inside Out is, by necessity, structured and functional, like the organized societies in Osmosis Jones or Woody Allen’s Everything You Always Wanted to Know About Sex (or a very similar, fantastic student film made by yours truly). Maybe you could think of this as the movie’s weakness. That it oversimplifies something so complicated into, well, a kid’s movie.

But really that’s what makes this movie so important and so damn helpful. It was made to be cathartic and therapeutic. As beautiful as Tree of Life or Eternal Sunshine were, they were more successful at making us feel resigned to the opaqueness of our own thoughts. What we need is to feel empowered to control and trust them. By watching Riley’s emotions, and her mother’s and father’s and everyone else’s, we’re learning about our own. Learning about when our feelings hinder us and when they help us to grow. Anyone who’s got a kid in the throes of pubescent moodiness could do worse than show them Inside Out. And if you’re childless, well, then let’s be serious. We could all use a strong dose of introspection. What’s the worst that could happen?

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