I love Pixar. Despite the fact that a few of their recent non-sequels were not the moon shots that their first seven or so films were (ahem, “The Good Dinosaur”), they’re still, pound for pound, the best movie studio on the planet. And I was really excited for “Inside Out,” despite its similarity to the early ‘90s Fox sitcom “Herman’s Head,” something my brother and I watched every week because a) we didn’t have cable, b) it was too late in the evening to plug in the guitars, and c) it followed “The Simpsons,” and “Simpsons” voice actors Hank Azaria and Yeardley Smith were in the cast. It was the path of least resistance.
The comparisons between “Inside Out” and “Herman’s Head” begin and end with the idea of each emotion being represented by a person. “Inside Out” digs much, much deeper into how the mind works, whereas “Herman’s Head” was more interested in giving Herman a forum to express his lustful thoughts (this was a Fox show, remember), only to call him weak when he didn’t act on them.
“Inside Out” was directed by Pete Docter, who has directed Pixar’s three most heartfelt films to date (“Monsters, Inc.” and “Up” being the other two). I interviewed Docter just before “Up” came out, and I affectionately called him a bastard for making me cry during the brilliant montage of Carl and Ellie. He laughed, and took it as the compliment that it was, because neither of us can imagine that anything will supplant this as the greatest four minutes of Pixar’s existence.
Thoughts of the films Docter had done, and my time talking with him, were all bouncing around in my head when “Inside Out” started playing. This is one of the reasons why I was so underwhelmed on first (and even second) viewing, because it looked like they were cutting corners on the story, or at least one extremely important piece of the story.
In the event that it need be said: ****THAR BE POTENTIAL SPOILERS UP AHEAD****
Hey, that rhymes.
Riley is an 11-year-old Minnesota girl, a good hockey player with good friends whose life is uprooted when her father follows a promising work opportunity to San Francisco, leaving Riley in a place with no friends and, for the first few days at least, no furniture and no clothes. Riley is a happy girl (Joy, wonderfully voiced by Amy Poehler, is in charge nearly all of the time inside Riley’s head), but Sadness (Phyllis Smith) is acting out. She begins touching core memories, which permanently taints them, and continues to misbehave after being reprimanded by all of the other emotions. Sadness admits that she doesn’t know what’s wrong with her, but she repeatedly changes Riley’s memories until Joy intervenes, at which point they both get accidentally sucked out of the control booth, and into Riley’s long-term memory. It’s a long way back to the control room from long-term memory, and until they return, Anger, Fear, and Disgust are in charge.
Movie critics generally have 24 to 48 hours to see a movie and write about it before it needs to be submitted and ready for publication, and that opinion will stand for time immemorial as your final, immovable stance on the film in question. Sometimes, that is simply not enough time to process what you’ve seen, which is why writers come into films ready to break them down as quickly and as cleanly as possible, in order to substantiate their arguments for why a film is good or bad. If the screening is Tuesday, and the movie comes out Friday, there is no telling your editor, “You know, I need to think about this one a little more. Maybe next week?” By next week, everyone is thinking about that week’s movies, and your review is left in the Internet dust. No, the review needs to happen now, whether or not you’ve properly processed the movie.
All of this is a way of explaining why Sadness tainting the core memories, and incapable of explaining her actions, seemed at first like manufactured conflict, something that exists for no other purpose than to get the plot to the next level. My own version of Anger was starting to take over the control panel when I first saw the movie. “What do you mean, she doesn’t know why she’s doing this? Stop doing the stupid thing, Sadness!” I’ve seen dozens upon dozens of movies pull this trick because they were too lazy to come up with something better, and it was crushing to see Pixar fall for the same trap.
Only they didn’t fall for the same trap; I just wasn’t looking at it the right way.
Riley had lived, up to the cross-country move, a blissfully happy life, which made it easy for Joy to remain in control behind the scenes. But now Riley was in unfamiliar and in many ways hostile territory (“Congratulations, San Francisco. You’ve ruined pizza”), and absolutely nothing is going well for her. It is at this point that Sadness begins assuming control in a highly passive-aggressive manner, because that’s what Sadness does to us. No one accepts her with open arms, even though the moral of the movie is that we’d all be a lot more well-adjusted if we did. Nope, we fight Sadness with everything we’ve got, and Riley is no exception. And because of her youth, she’s even less-equipped to handle this than most adults, so of course the transfer of power from Joy to Sadness is awkward and contentious. Joy doesn’t want to relinquish control, and Sadness has so little (if any) experience in a position of authority that she doesn’t know how to lead. That is, until Joy steps aside at the very end and allows Sadness to drive, at which point Riley feels instantly better, and the experience produces Riley’s first swirled core memory, a mixture of Joy and Sadness.
But man, the whole ‘I don’t know why I’m doing this’ thing looked like exactly that at first glance, especially when you take into account the fact that it was originally going to be Joy and Fear who have the big journey, and the Pixar writing staff recognized that the story wasn’t working, and rewrote it so that Joy and Sadness were reluctant partners. I heard that and thought, “Well, they got the better ending, but they had to take some major short cuts to get to it,” because in any other movie, answering the question “Why did you do that?” with “I don’t know” is unacceptable. (Unless, of course, you’re Jeff Spicoli.) This is the one instance where it is acceptable, because Riley was feeling a rush of emotions that she was not mature enough to process.
This was probably obvious to everyone else from the very beginning. For whatever reason – most likely my need to regurgitate what I had just seen as quickly as possible – it escaped me until now. In retrospect, “Inside Out” might be the subtlest and most insightful film Pixar has ever done, and I’m embarrassed that it took me this long to see it for what it was.