So, I’ve been mulling over Inside Out, the latest offering from Pixar Studios, which I saw a couple of weeks ago. The short version is: I really didn’t like it. It seems every critic has been going out of their way to praise this admittedly high-concept film and I’m just not seeing it. In fact, the more I’ve thought about it, the more problems I find. I know I can be hard to impress, but I’ve loved plenty of other Pixar films, so why not this one? Here are some of the reasons I’ve come up with.
Attention: Spoilers ahead!
1) Poor Storytelling. The world-building is all over the map. There is a lot that is not explained and/or completely falls apart when examined closely. Just one example is when Riley doesn’t just lose interest in hockey, she forgets how to play. What? That makes no sense given the parameters about core memories and emotions set out at the beginning. Some of the set pieces, such as abstract thought and how dreams are created, are very well done, but South Park already did a three-episode “Imaginationland” arc and here it would have been nice to see Pixar go for thoughtful rather than clever.
2) Disgust. While I love the basic premise of this film, I think it really fails by including Disgust as one of the five emotions in charge of Headquarters. Joy, Sadness, Anger, Fear—these are all primal emotions that make sense to me. I realize that there is all sorts of disagreement about how many basic emotions we have, but if you are going to include another one beyond these four, why not something more “positive”? Where is love? or surprise? Since the emotions have such clichéd reactions, it’s hard to connect with them as it is. At the very least, including something like trust, pride, or even guilt might have resulted in more balance and made Joy seem less manic.
3) Negativity. Besides portraying mostly “negative” emotions, the film’s quest is a dark and negative one. They are not simply striving to get back to hearth and home; rather, for every delay or failure, there are severe negative consequences. Like, really severe. Our reward for this extreme tension? In the end, we’re right back where we started. Nothing is gained, except the knowledge that “sadness is okay” (Really? Our protagonist control freak learns that maybe some of the other emotions can contribute? Shouldn’t that be inherent in this system? See above re world-building problems.)
4) Sentimentality. The film hits the audience over the head with cheap sentimentality. Because Riley seems to be completely controlled by her emotions and the protagonist is actually Joy, the film can’t be the coming-of-age story it seems to be shooting for. And, by definition, the core emotions are very one-sided, so ironically, they provide very little emotional weight. Enter the über-sentimental Bing-Bong. Bing-Bong is a good character, and actually fleshed out far better than the core emotions, but his arc goes on for far too long and, if you’ve seen numerous other Pixar films, is extremely predictable. Pixar needs to stop going to the old-plaything nostalgia well.
4) Phobias. If the basic quest narrative isn’t darkly intense enough for you, this film may also be difficult to watch if you have a fear of heights or clowns. If you found the trailer for The Walk terrifying, as I did, this movie will have you squirming in your seat more than once. At many points, watching this movie was simply not a pleasant experience for me.
5) Sexism. There has been a lot of ballyhoo about this being the story of a young girl. However, it’s like Pixar bent over backwards to make Riley’s character as boy-friendly as possible. In addition to her unisex name and her emotions being both genders (which is not true of her parents’ emotions, or, say, the boy’s mind we see inside later in the film), one of her five personality islands is hockey. Now, there could have been a plot-related reason for this that made sense—for example, if she couldn’t play in San Francisco because the sport is not that popular in California—but there isn’t any reason this couldn’t have been soccer or any other sport or activity. I’m not saying girls can’t want to play hockey, but it seems like an odd, deliberately “masculine” choice. Furthermore, much regarding the depiction of the parents is very gendered and the “cool girl” moment of the wife loving the face-painting made me think Pixar is going backwards in this regard.
Don’t get me wrong, Inside Out is gorgeous to look at. And the voice work is top notch. The problem is with the plot, not the presentation, the execution, not the concept. Some things I really liked:
1) Sadness. A great character and a terrific performance. (ETA: Since this review, I have seen it pointed out that the image of sadness as a dumpy woman with glasses is problematic at best. And, yes, how did I not notice that? See above re sexism.)
2) The running gag with the newspapers. I would have liked to see more about the inner workings of Headquarters and their interactions with other divisions like Dream Productions. However, because a lot of it didn’t make much sense, maybe this would have been difficult.
3) The end credits: I wish I had seen that movie.
The premise for this film was stellar, but, by having the major storyline combine the gut-wrenching heartbreak of the opening of Up and the anxiety of the finale of Toy Story 3, Pixar failed this viewer. The film was intense and heartbreaking, but not in a good way. I can’t imagine kids liking this at all so I look forward to seeing the audience reception of this one. Myself, well, I mostly just want to rewatch the Pixar films that did it better (ETA: So I did).