A new Pixar offering is always going to get me in a theater seat, and Inside Out was no exception. I saw it a few days ago, and while it was definitely a good movie, I don’t know that I’d call it a great one. Mild spoilers below the jump.
In the vein of other “beautifully animated but really heteronormative” opening shorts like Paperman, Inside Out opens with Lava, a short about two volcanoes who fall in love. One, the guy volcano, is a huge, craggy mountain that barely looks sentient till we realize those cracks are its face; the other, the girl volcano, is tall and thin and has dried lava flows that look like flowing hair, because of course she does. After all, animated girls have to be pretty, even when they’re a literal rock formation. Gender norms are a hell of a drug, kids!
Once the short’s credits roll, we get to the main event. Inside Out promised to take us inside the human brain, and that’s exactly what it does. Well, it’s the inside of one brain in particular: that of a young girl named Riley. Riley loves playing hockey, goofing around, and hanging out with her friends, and is deeply bummed when her parents move her from Minnesota to San Francisco for her dad’s work. We see Riley’s world from the point of view of her emotions, Fear, Joy, Sadness, Anger, and Disgust. These humanized emotions watch Riley’s life from their headquarters and use their emotional power to react to her environment in a way appropriate for her personality. Each day, Riley builds up a cache of memory spheres. Most get backed up into long-term memory storage at the end of the day, but truly notable memories, known as core memories, are kept in Headquarters and form the basis of Riley’s personality: her love of family and hockey, her honesty, etc.
When an accident sends these core memory spheres out of Headquarters, Joy and Sadness set off to get them back. Unfortunately, this coincides perfectly with Riley’s big move, meaning that the only emotions she has left to react to her new situation are Fear, Anger, and Disgust. While Joy and Sadness struggle to get along and get back to Headquarters with the core memories intact, Fear, Anger, and Disgust inspire Riley to make a series of regrettable decisions. It’s only when Joy comes to terms with the fact that Sadness has value as a partner in running Riley’s brain that things take a turn for the better.
The main emotional arc of the story belongs not to Riley, whose reactions we see as choreographed, but to Joy. Joy is the de facto leader of the emotions, and while she’s not openly antagonistic to Sadness, she’s pretty dang passive-agressive. Riley had a happy childhood, and so up until this move Sadness hasn’t had much to do. Joy is constantly giving her petty tasks like reading manuals to keep her out of the hair of the rest of the emotions, and she refuses to let Sadness touch any of the memories, because doing so permanently tinges them with sadness. Despite the fact that all of the emotions clearly have their value depending on the situation, Joy is dismissive of Sadness in a way she isn’t of the other three, and is constantly suggesting that the way Sadness thinks about things is wrong. Throughout the move Riley’s parents inadvertently pressure her to keep up a happy face, so Sadness doesn’t even get to take the helm when she really deserves to. It takes what amounts to an odd couple road trip through the back ways of Riley’s brain to make Joy see that Sadness is an important and useful part of her team, and when they finally make it back to Headquarters, she lets Sadness take the reins and help Riley out of her emotional slump.
In the end, kids get the message that it’s not just okay, it’s sometimes necessary to be sad, and that’s certainly a good message to send. More implicitly, it teaches viewers that even if you think someone else is useless or their talents aren’t worthwhile, it’s possible that you just haven’t given them the right opportunity to shine. It also shows us that it’s healthier to let your emotions out rather than keeping them bottled up. Weirdly enough, this part of its message briefly made me wish the protagonist had been male, because guys are way more socialized to repress their feelings than women are, and it might have been good for boys to see a boy who was encouraged to express them instead. However, from circumstantial evidence (the cross-gender popularity of Inside Out merchandise at the bookstore I work at) it doesn’t seem like boys are too put-off by girls running the plot. Lastly, because of the way it frames the inside of the brain, it theoretically gives children a simple working vocabulary adults can draw on to discuss things like depression in a way that makes sense to them.
Given that the main characters of the movie are Joy and Sadness, female-identified emotions, and that Riley is the topic of most of their conversations, the movie does smash the Bechdel Test into tiny pieces. And Riley is an unconventional female character in that her primary characteristics are “being a goofball” and “liking hockey”, not traits one usually associates with girls in kids’ media. I do wonder if this was intentionally done to make the movie more approachable to boy viewers, though, or if it was an organic part of her character development. I also feel like cross-demographic appeal was the reason Riley’s emotions were mixed gender when everyone else’s were shown as being the same gender as their host’s (e.g. Dad’s were all male, Mom’s were all female, etc.). We had discussed this previously in our trailer review, and after seeing the whole movie, it doesn’t seem like they were trying to make any sort of statement about Riley’s gender identity.
But there were some more subtle bits of gender stereotyping that I could have done without. For example, in Riley’s brain, Joy is the head of the emotions, but in her father’s brain, Anger is the one in charge, and all of Dad’s emotions are portrayed as playing into male stereotypes, like not paying attention to your wife and being unable to read or understand emotional situations. In Mom’s brain, Sadness is the head, which is a weird choice, because we don’t see a lot of Mom’s personality? I guess they wanted to distinguish her from Dad and Riley and it’d be more weird for Fear or Disgust to have been Mom’s in-charge emotion. Anyway, most of the moments we get in Mom’s head is devoted to a joke that she regrets not marrying some sexy Brazilian helicopter pilot. It’s especially weird how these glimpses into Mom and Dad’s brain frame their relationship as somewhat antagonistic because from the outside, they act and seem like a very healthy and supportive pair.
In the end, I did enjoy Inside Out. It was beautifully animated, conceptually fascinating, and touching in ways I didn’t expect. However, while I liked it, I’m not sure if it’s something I’ll see again, or something I’ll want to re-watch later in the way I return to the Pixar features of my childhood. Maybe that’s just me getting old, though. And while part of me understands that it’s still too much to expect too feminist/revolutionary of a story from anything Disney, I do wish that it had relied a little less on tired gender tropes for its background characterization. All that said, I do think it’s worth at least one watch, so check it out if you get a chance. And if you’re tear-prone like me, load up on tissues beforehand.