Film Review: Inside Out

Inside Out | USA, 2015 | dir. Pete Docter | 102 mins

Pixar’s latest film has a simple concept: it claims to take us inside the head of an 11 year old girl called Riley. There is a little more to it than that – this 11 year old girl is having a stressful year moving house for her father’s work.

I think it is uncontroversial to say that Pixar has pretty solid form: even their least successful films are pretty darned good and that’s not too surprising given their animators’ undoubted skills and attention to detail. As is now expected of an animated film Inside Out also benefits from a well chosen cast – most prominently Amy Poehler (as Joy) and Mindy Kaling (Disgust), and a thoughtful and emotive score (too emotive for my taste but well crafted by Michael Giacchino). But, despite many lovely parts, for me Inside Out just didn’t quite work.

The film isn’t without ambition, dealing with interesting ideas about what makes a person’s personality, emotions, core. In order to understand this one person we follow Riley’s inner emotional team – composed of Joy, Sadness, Disgust, Fear and Anger – as they sail her through a tough preteen time whilst her parents move home from Minnesota to San Francisco.

There really is much to love here, from consistently funny jokes and background details, to the quite avant garde visual highlight of a journey through Abstract Thinking. It is kooky, silly, and yet the concept also raises so many questions. I agree entirely with Pop Culture Happy Hour’s comments that it seems bizarre that when we see into other characters’ heads – particularly adult characters – there are no other personality/emotional states present. Notably absent is lust (or something in that broad direction), which may be just about excusable in the 11 year old Riley but peculiar in her adult parents minds. And there are strange gender clichés too: Riley’s father is operated by male emotions led – and entirely embodied – by Anger, whilst her mother is operated by Female emotions led by Joy and Sadness. Riley’s own emotions are a mix of genders, which seems positive, and her interests helpfully are not cliched – ice hockey features but so does an imaginary boyfriend – but in naming, emotions, and interest there is almost a sense of Riley as pre-gender and pre-sexuality rather than genuinely diverse or more meaningfully defying convention.

Of course defying convention requires slightly more variety than most Pixar films are comfortable with: I may love Toy Story as a fun cute movie but I am growing tired at seeing the same narrative of lost innocence play out in (almost) all of their movies. For some of us childhood isn’t the best time of our lives, some of us adults actually really like being adults and have only minimal nostalgia for childhood. Although I have long suspected that Pixar makes films not for kids, or for child-free adults, but for the parents who wish their little monsters (inc) would stay tiny for ever. I understand the motivation for universal themes in films that take years to make, but I do wish they’d take an edgier, more realistic stance on what it means to be a kid.

But then that cheesy earnestness also has it’s charms. Inside out includes a wealth of jokes that gently mock West Coast hipsterism, such as Riley’s family responding to discovering that a pizza place named “Yeast of Eden” serves only broccoli pizza, to their shared disgust (a plausible moment of goofiness in a city that began the “Toast Craze” with Trouble, a restaurant that serves only toast, coffee, grapefruit juice and coconut water). The fact that Riley yearns for Minnesota whist in San Francisco – rather than the other way around – marks a genuine point of difference from most teen relocation movies that speaks to what kids might actually want, rather than what stage school kids want. It rings true, even if the picture of Minnesota life is a little too ridiculously cosy and retro to bear up to too much scrutiny.

Other aspects are less convincing: Riley’s father is supposed to be setting up a start up – or at least developing his start up – and is stressed with investor meetings despite a notable absence of working at home, or his working until 11pm. If you have friends in similar roles – or listen to Start Up – you may recognise this as, at best, an unusually functional work-life balance. The entirely family also seem to have moved into the kind of run down townhouse that you wouldn’t actually get for under a few million in downtown San Francisco anymore – a small niggle but it matters. And despite the current property prices in the Bay Area by far the most terrifying moment in the movie for most viewers who’ve ever spent time in San Francisco is likely to be the thought of an 11 year old walking to school, and worse still walking to the bus station, alone… Now we are meant to fear for Riley’s safety at the crucial run away moment but perhaps not to that extent. It’s not that that artistic license isn’t acceptable, but in such an already silly high concept movie, details really do make a big difference.

For me the trickiest element of the entire film is the audience it is intended for. Much of the funniest and most interesting material seems aimed at an older teen or adult audience, and it works well… But then we have Riley’s emotions visualised with muppet like fabric textures (presumably an intentional move since this is notably absent in the adult counterparts), and engaging in any amount of random slapstick. We have a few moments of genuine tension but also some distance from adult life/decisions which might be plausible in a 5 or 6 year old lead character, but seems unlikely for an 11 year old… And there seems like so much more that could be explored through this central Numbskulls/Herman’s Head like conceit, if only the Pixar team had the courage to be fine with excluding younger viewers. Because for me Riley seems like a very young 11 year old girl and whilst I’m pleased that they made their lead a girl I think that, in an attempt to make her work for any audience, what they have actually written is the emotional landscape of a sensitive 11 year old boy…

So an ambitious and beautifully animated film, and an interesting idea, but for me – and I’ll be honest I know I was a troublesome and precocious 11 year old so what do I know – it didn’t ring anywhere near true enough to suspend my disbelief. There were emotional moments, genuinely good jokes and some big ideas but by focusing on the rather simplistic emotions the team behind Inside Out have forgotten to make their human leads engaging or intelligent enough to really reflect the complexities of real emotions and personalities.

And, as an aside to Pixar, it would be nice to see not only more female characters with complexity in your films, but also a darker and much stronger script occasionally. Inside Out could have been brilliant given a much darker, more honest, critically engaged and more mature script – because there is a lot more going on in most 11 year old brains than Inside Out begins to get near. Animation does not mean that all audiences are or should be children (or have children), to assume that is the only audience is to give up on pushing boundaries. At the same time, if you are representing and reflecting kids lives or experiences where are you non white protagonists? Your single parent families and children with experience of divorce, bereavement or the care system? Your working class (in the UK sense) parents, struggling to survive, rather than stressing about what must (in the case of Inside Out) be multi million dollar enterprises or choices between affluent homes and choices. There are so many interesting stories to tell, why only focus on the nostalgic lament of childhood? My childhood had moments that were wonderful but was not the happiest time of my life – my thirties have that honour thus far but I have high expectations for the future too – so why assume that all children should fail to grow old or fail to develop in order to be happy? There are plenty of playful, intelligent, critical, and very happy adults out in the world, and many introspective, bullied, unhappy kids out there too. Don’t assume all in your audience share all of your desires to return to a more innocent time. Innocence is often seriously overrated.

So, that mini rant aside, would I see Inside Out again or recommend it to others? Yes, absolutely. It’s well crafted, sweet, but it is much less substantial and interesting than it should be. The Incredibles, oddly, feels much more grounded in reality compared to this ode to the delights of the Mid-West. Wall-E is more gut wrenching in it’s targeted exploration of dark themes. This is the Numbskulls mixed with Herman’s Head in a very light Judy Bloom (pre-Forever) honey coating. If you long for your childhood days, you’ll love it. If you were a tough little pre-teen I suspect you’ll be more than a little frustrated.

Footnote: And don’t even get me started on the advertising, endorsements and product tie ins that have emerged since the movie went into official release… 

Viewed as part of EIFF 2015.

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