So I recently went to see Inside Out, the latest Pixar movie. It’s set inside the head of Riley, as an 11-year-old girl who has to leave her hometown in Minnesota to move to San Francisco with her parents, prompting confusion among her emotions – Joy, Sadness, Fear, Disgust and Anger – in the HQ of her brain.
I was excited to see it, as I thought it was a pretty smart, meta idea and it’s been variously hailed by critics as a “masterpiece,” “Pixar at its best” and deserving of an Academy Award nomination for Best Picture.
Except here’s the thing. I didn’t get pulled in. I didn’t get emotional. I didn’t cry. Most disturbing of all, such is Pixar’s reliable history of heartwrenching sequences, I’m doubting myself, rather than the filmmakers.
The growing old sequence in Up, the caring for Eva montage of Wall-E, hell, pretty much all of Toy Story 3. These have got me every time.
But in Inside Out – nothing. I remained, like almost every character in the movie, entirely detached.
So let’s try and unpack some of this emotional baggage. It isn’t all doom and gloom.
I can’t deny I marvelled at the enormous scope of the cerebral environment the filmmakers have created. This was an ambitious, high concept idea, executed imaginatively and meticulously.
The awakening of consciousness, the creation of memories and the development of personality are all described and explained before the title sequence has even finished.
This rich and inventive new world is on a par with those established in Monsters Inc or Wall-E. It was colourful, crazy and it never failed to impress me. If Willy Wonka built brains, this is what they would look like.
Inside Out also made me laugh more than any other Pixar movie has done, with some astute observational comedy about brain function and the real world.
There’s a fantastic moment when Joy knocks over two boxes labelled Fact and Opinions, spilling their contents all over the place. Riley’s imaginary friend Bing Bong tells Joy not to worry about it, he gets them mixed up all the time.
In another lovely scene, menial staff called The Forgetters clearing out fading memories insist on keeping Riley’s memory of a gum commercial so they can send it back to play in HQ repeatedly, just for laughs. A rather brilliant way of explaining why ad jingles get so stuck in our heads.
Perhaps the biggest laughs were right at the end, where we get to see what’s going on in other people’s – and animals’ – heads. The cat version was worth the ticket price alone.
Head not heart
But with so much headspace, this film lacked heart.
In much the same way as we rooted for Remy the rat, who controls Linguini the chef in Ratatouille, Inside Out asks us to get behind Riley’s emotions, as they in turn control Riley.
But in Inside Out, Riley’s emotions stand alone, barely working as a team, rarely acknowledging each other’s value and by definition, unable to express any other emotion than the one they are assigned. Which makes relationships difficult to come by.
There is an attempt to draw a central relationship between Riley and Joy, but unlike the relationship between Remy and Linguini, this is entirely one-sided. Ironically, there is nothing to invest in at an emotional level and love, one our strongest human emotions, is not even acknowledged.
As a sidenote, it was in fact Lava, the short shown before Inside Out, that moved me the most. The story of a volcano who dreams of finding love was uncharacteristic of Pixar shorts, but genuinely touching, beautifully animated and bursting with heart.
Missteps and messages
Returning to Inside Out, there were also a few missteps. Riley should have owned up at the end, so Honesty Island was restored. But she didn’t, which I think sent out the wrong message in a film aimed at children.
And the movie’s message about the need for us to acknowledge Sadness so we can deal with it and get the support we need came close to being one about using Sadness to get attention.
Overall, this was a wonderfully creative imagining of all the aspects of brain function, with a little girl at the mercy of her emotions as Joy and Sadness try to come to terms with each other’s existence. One which will doubtless help kids articulate what they are feeling, and help parents understand their kids better. And I salute that.
And yet, I’m still left wondering at the fact a Pixar movie, literally full of emotions, has not elicited any joy, anger, fear, disgust – or even sadness – in me. If anything, I’m left feeling as empty as Riley, when the control panel shuts down and she is, to all intents and purposes, dead inside.
I want your feedback. Any thoughts, reaction, advice… Let me know in the comments below!