Inside Out, a 2015 film that is both allegorical and naturalistic, dives into the consciousness of its main character, in ways both innovative and drawing on a 500 years old dramatic tradition. Let’s start with the film’s Emotion characters, who are embodiments of feelings–in other words, concepts depicted as characters. When I first started watching Inside Out, I was annoyed that one character, Joy (Amy Poehler), monopolized most of the attention, while the other characters were de-emphasized. I was especially annoyed that Sadness (Phyllis Smith) was basically marginalized by Joy. I thought to myself, “well, it would be nice if this movie recognized that the utility of every emotion is dependent upon circumstances. No one emotion is invariably superior to the others.”
In this film, there are times when Anger (Lewis Black) is most useful, when Disgust (Mindy Kaling) is needed, and when Fear can be a person’s best friend. Sadness is a feeling that has its uses too; it can validate one’s perspective, and it can propel a person towards reflection. Sadness can help a person truly appreciate ideas, experiences, people, and objects through methods not available to Joy. So, as you can see, all the focus on Joy started to annoy me.
Moreover, each of these emotions–Joy, Sadness, Disgust, Anger, and Fear–expands the variations of the other emotions. For instance, Fear (Bill Hader) may appear simple and unidimensional, but look more closely, and you’ll see different permutations–fear-disgust, fear-joy, and fear-anger. Like hues on a color wheel, the more you combine these emotions, the more emotive shades there will be to experience. What results from mingling them together is a tapestry of tones, a many layered, nuanced personality.
So “why,” I thought, “does this movie seem to be marginalizing “Sadnesss?” Even as I was asking myself this question, I suspected that this early part of the story was simply setting up a larger complication, one where the characters would learn their interdependence of each other. And, indeed, my suspicions, turned out to be correct. The film–and I’ll try to keep this vague–provides the Emotions greater awareness of themselves and their role in the life of the little girl, Riley (Kaitlyn Dias), in whom they are embodied.
In case you don’t know the conceit of the film, it’s basically the story of a young pre-teen girl named, Riley. It’s a coming-of-age film, where she matures as her family moves to a new city. The story takes place on two different spheres. First, we see the events between Riley and her friends, her school contacts, and her family. The second sphere is inside the mind of Riley, and it’s where we see the five emotions.
The five emotions I’ve listed are part of Riley’s mission control center, with any number of other figures, memories, thoughts, and feelings, making up the crevices and contours of her mind. Her mind makes up the setting of the majority of the film, and the creativity in the mis-en-scene in representing Riley’s grey matter is itself part of the charm of this film. There are caverns, mazes, towers, and beautiful landscapes that together make manifest Riley’s psyche.
In the story, Riley is forced to confront any number of new experiences, thoughts, and feelings, but to do so, she needs to marshal the whole of her intellect and heart, including all five of her key feelings. Here’s the problem: she is in conflict with herself, with some of her feelings trying to marginalize others. More to the point, Joy assumes that her contributions to Riley’s life are the most important. Joy is filled with a type of naïve hubris, that is both annoying but forgivable in its earnestness.
Joy doesn’t quite understand the importance or value of any emotion other than herself. She reluctantly accepts that some other emotions–Fear, Disgust, and Anger–can occasionally be useful, but it boggles her mind why Sadness is there. Joy sees no value in Sadness and makes it her unsolicited burden to minimize the impact Sadness has on the life of Riley.
However, this is where things go awry. Joy does not want Sadness meddling in the affairs of Riley, but Sadness has a job to do. One thing leads to another, and both Joy and Sadness are expelled from Riley’s mission control. This means that for the majority of the film, Riley has only Anger, Disgust, and Fear to guide her; meanwhile, Joy and Sadness try to find a way back to Mission Control and discover some method for getting along and working together.
In the film, we see things from the perspective of Riley, a pre-teen girl, and her frustrations and tribulations maturing from childhood into adolescence. This film captures much of that experience in a way that is both accurate and accessible for a young audience. We also see all of this from inside Riley’s head, in a way that is both allegorical but also a story in its own right. The evolving relationship between Sadness and Joy could be a story on its own. And just as Riley has a coming-of-age moment, so does Joy, as she better understands those around her.
Inside Out is reminiscent of late Medieval drama, especially Everyman, where the characters represent concepts more than individuals. Everyman comes to realize that all those who accompany him will abandon him before he dies. Wit, Strength, and Beauty will leave him, and only Good Deeds will stay with him. The play Everyman can be performed dramatically but for laughs as well, which is something it has in common in Inside Out. I couldn’t help but think of the early 90s Fox television show Herman’s Head, when watching this Pixar film, as well. It’s the same basic premise, but with more of a PG-13 or R rated approach. Finally, the cast for this film is well chosen, and Richard Kind puts on an especially moving performance as Riley’s long forgotten childhood make-believe friend, Bing Bong.
I would recommend Inside Out. It’s a thoughtful, intelligent, insightful film. For those who have watched it, I’d recommend taking a look at Everyman for a 15th Century cousin of this recent Pixar flick.