Postmortem: Inside Out

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Anger, Joy, Disgust, Sadness, and Fear, living it up at Riley HQ.

Warning: Spoilers.

Say what you will about Rotten Tomatoes – when a movie scores 98%, it’s usually pretty damn good. Pixar’s latest offering, Inside Out, scored 98%, so Betsy and I saw it, and I can confirm it’s pretty damn good. For my money, it’s tied with The Incredibles for best Pixar film. And that’s saying something.

The premise is simple. Every person’s mind can be visualized as a mini world, overseen by the personifications of five main emotions: Joy, Sadness, Anger (Lewis Black!), Fear, and Disgust. Our hero, an eleven-year-old girl named Riley, has these little guys in her head like everyone else. Of the five, Joy is the leader – or at least first among equals – and the other four all share her goal of making Riley happy.

When Riley and her family move from her hometown (in Minnesota, eh?) to San Francisco, she does her best to cope. It’s a struggle, but she’s a positive kid – Joy has done her work well.

And then one day, Joy and Sadness get yanked out of Headquarters. To get back, they’re forced into a journey across the vast expanse of Riley’s mind. Meanwhile, Riley is left with only Anger, Fear, and Disgust running the show. She has lost the capacity for both happiness and genuine sadness. Her life spirals rapidly. Her relationships break down. She stops caring about anything. Finally, she loses the ability to feel any real emotion at all. She’s dying inside.

They never spell it out, but it’s abundantly clear what’s happening. Riley, an eleven-year-old girl, is sinking into clinical depression.

And if you think that’s heavy, how about the conclusion of the film: that mere happiness is not the goal of life; that sadness and joy are symbiotically linked, like yin and yang, and neither can exist without the other; that Riley can only grow up by accepting that sadness is a fundamental part of who she is.

Pretty adult stuff for a Disney cartoon. I mean, when they bust out the PG rating, you know shit has gotten real.

What's happening to our daughter?

What’s happening to our daughter?

Of course, despite its moments of darkness – and there are many – Inside Out is basically a happy movie, bursting with color, energy, cleverness, humor, and the exceptional polish and attention to detail we’ve come to expect from all of Pixar’s work. And sprinkled in with the humor are genuine insights, as when  a character casually explains that the contents of two boxes – Facts and Opinions – are always getting mixed up, and nobody really bothers to sort them out properly.

Complaints? Well, I have a few minor ones. I think Inside Out‘s vision of the mind places far too much emphasis on feeling, with almost no weight given to reason-based thought. I also got annoyed with the movie sometimes for leaning a little heavily on cliches, as when Riley’s father is shown to be obsessed with sports, emotionally clueless, and concerned with whether he’s angered his wife by leaving the toilet seat up.

But these are small problems, the kind of “problems” that all movies have, merely because you can’t please everyone all the time. The upshot is that Inside Out is utterly brilliant, and if you’ve ever liked anything Pixar has done in the past, I highly recommend this one.

I was planning to end the post here. But yesterday, I came across a negative review of the movie on NPR, by philosopher (and critic?) Alva Noë. Now, obviously reviewers are entitled to their opinions, and I don’t make a habit of writing rebuttals. But in this case I was drawn to respond, because (1) I ordinarily respect what NPR has to say, (2) Noë’s criticisms seem patently absurd, and (3) Inside Out is just so friggin’ sweet.

As befits a philosopher, his main gripe with the movie is philosophical:

Riley is not a person, she is a robot, a complicated vessel whose actions and intentions are controlled by persons — emotions and memory workers — inside of her. Riley is no more an agent in her own right than is, say, a ship an agent in its own right.

He adds that “there is something downright terrifying about this nihilistic conception of ourselves as zombie puppets living in a confabulated universe.”

This criticism seems to misunderstand the basic premise of the story. Of course Riley is controlled by the “persons” inside her – because those persons, collectively, are her mind. The Self is not a single, monolithic whole; it’s composed of various departments and tendencies operating in tandem, which together make up the core of Who You Are.

If having a body controlled by a mind makes you a “zombie puppet,” well, I’ve got some bad news for everybody on the planet. And if Noë thinks Inside Out is nihilistic, I’d hate to see his reaction to Requiem for a Dream.

His other criticisms include:

  • Riley, with her “boy’s name” and love of hockey, is basically a male character, allowing the film’s creators to avoid having to depict a real girl. Yes, because no real girl could like a traditionally masculine sport or have a unisex name. If only she had been named Annabelle and played with Barbies, that would have been a victory for feminism.
  • What should we make of the fact that Anger and Fear are portrayed as male, while the other three emotions are female? Well, mathematically speaking, you have two genders and five emotions, so it’s literally impossible to avoid reducing one of the genders to two or fewer emotions. Would Noë have been happier if Fear were female? If Joy were male? Is there any way to reduce a gender to two or three emotions that won’t cause offense if you take it too seriously?
  • Why is there no racial variation in our internal population? Judging by his reaction to the gender variation, I’m guessing racial variation would be a no-win scenario too. A black man as Anger? No, that would be offensive. What race should be Fear? How about Disgust? What magic combination could please a critic like this?
  • Nothing much happened in the story. Correct. Aside from Riley moving to a new city, having a breakdown at school, cutting off contact with her friend, losing her connection with her parents, running away from home, returning for a cathartic reunion, and learning a profound lesson about what it means to be human, all while the characters inside her head are undertaking an epic journey whose stakes are the soul of our protagonist – aside from all that, nothing much happened.

Maybe it’s telling that, throughout his review, Alva Noë never managed to spell the director’s name right – he called him “Pete Doctor” instead of “Docter.” (To NPR’s credit, the spelling has since been corrected.)

Or maybe he just needs a copyeditor. Hey, Alva. I know a guy.

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2 responses to “Postmortem: Inside Out

  1. I was thinking about seeing this (even before I read this). Not the sort of thing I usually watch, but it looks good, and I really liked Wall-E.

    The reviewer in the New Yorker also mentioned the lack of Reason (“whom I picture as French, bald, and wearing an English suit”).

    Wow, the “not really a girl” criticism is weird. 1950s much?

    “Not a real girl” — wow. Wonder what he’d think of the U.S. women’s soccer team. Or Ronda Rousey. Or my rock-and-roll drumming, black-belt-in-karate ex-wife.

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