"Inside Out" Reviewed

Inside Out presents a worldview. Whether you like the film will depend largely on whether you like its perspective. It can be reviewed according to three criteria:

  1. As a film
  2. As a story
  3. As a philosophy

As a film

Like all films with a fantastical element, Inside Out establishes its own rules. In this case, it sets out that people’s behaviour is governed by their emotions and specifically: Joy, Sadness, Fear, Hate and Disgust. Which raises the first question: why these emotions?Why have fear but not courage? Why have hate but not love? The answer is obvious enough - that for the plot to work, Riley’s character must face a crisis if Joy is lost. For her to be this mentally fragile, she must have mainly negative emotions, which are usually kept in check by Joy.

However, the emotions are not portrayed with consistent identities. When Joy is lost, Hate does not consistently hate. Disgust should not care what happens to Riley but instead she adopts a “wish I could help” attitude! The rules of behaviour for these characters continually change according to the direction of the story. The end result is that they defeat their own design. We, as the audience, do not understand their power or limits.   Sometimes they seem as old as time and other times they are less mature than Riley. So who is controlling who?

The film continues to make choices based on pragmatic story-telling, rather than consistent logic. Hate is able to plant the idea of running away but it cannot be countered by Fear putting an idea into Riley’s head to stop her. Why not? Bing Bong and Joy both demonstrate that Bing Bong’s bag has infinite space - so why does not Bing Bong jump into it on the rocket, rather than fall to his “death”? Joy promised to Bing Bong that she would make Riley remember him. She does not do so. Even if all memory of him had been lost with his passing, she could have brought him into a dream and brought him back to “life” again.

Within the hazy limits set out by the script-writers, there are enough plot-holes and inconsistencies to make this film a headache to endure. And before anyone says that it is only a kids’ film and therefore should not be critiqued, it is not a kid’s film. Children like stories. Boys like stories about brave men. Girls like stories about confident girls of their own age. Neither wants to watch a 90 minute study on the mental processes of a tantrum. This film is a brightly-coloured affirmation of modernism. The musical score lacked any identity. The animation lacked consistency of style. And the only joke came from the advert jingle. In fact, the film demonstrates that when humanists try to be epistemologically self-conscious, they forget how to entertain.

As a story

Riley is a brat. All that matters to Riley is that she should be happy. An older style of film-making would have told a different story in which Riley learns that the world should not and will not revolve around her personal happiness and just because something feels right doesn’t mean that it is right. It could go something like this:

Riley moves house (as in the film). Expunge a large section of Joy wandering around the mind and jump to Riley running away. She has stolen her Mum’s card, booked the ticket and got to the station. She is a little girl. But now she has to face what adults do all the time - the unexpected. The bus could have broken down, been cancelled or she arrived too late. Anyway, she is stuck at the bus station. Alone. What should Riley do? Go home? Never! So, like any sulky kid, she decides to wait for another bus to arrive the next day.

Night falls and Riley is afraid. Everyone is going apart from a homeless woman, who is bedding down for the night. She’s not very pretty and her dog shakes himself and scratches continually. The homeless woman looks frightening to Riley, whose emotions of disgust, fear and hate are all in overdrive. But as fear overwhelms, the old lady approaches Riley and asks what she is doing out so late. Riley tells the story, with no regret and all the arrogance of sorting out her own life. The old lady has the measure of her and doesn’t criticise, seeing that she wouldn’t listen anyway. She explains that it can be more comfortable on the bench. She puts Riley “to bed”, using her own torn blankets on the child and she tells her a story until she falls asleep.

Riley wakes the next morning because of a howling in her dream. But it’s not in her dream - it’s in the bus station. The old lady’s dog is giving pitiful moans and yips over the cold body of his mistress, who had died in the night. Riley’s Sadness comes shooting into her mind once more, alongside Fear. Guilt pops in. She is devastated in case it was because of her that the old lady got cold and died. The police come and help get Riley home again. Her dad is cross, having worried all night long. Her mum is relieved and weepy.

Disgust, that had judged the old lady, shrinks in size. Sadness has grown. Joy is still absent. But into the headquarters comes a new figure - Love. Riley is desperate to look after the old lady’s dog. She knows it doesn’t look much but she owes it to the old lady. Her parents go with her to look at the creature, who would otherwise be put down. Sympathy comes into Riley’s mind. Courage arrives to touch the flea-bitten creature. Together, they transform the dog into a lovely new boy, and his joy restores Riley’s Joy. Her mind has developed. The emotionally stunted view at the start has matured to include more grown-up ideas. With these character traits, she is able to cope with the new school, make new friends and be a good daughter. She is responsible for her actions and knows, from the example of the old lady, that sometimes our own happiness must be sacrificed for others.

As a philosophy

The philosophy expressed in Pixar’s Inside Out does not allow for maturity or redemption. Riley is emotionally the same at the end as she was at the start and that is deemed to be a success. She could have achieved the same emotional plateau by doing other things which made her happy - like killing kittens and burning garden sheds to the ground. The problem of basing character on emotions - as in Inside Out - is that there is nothing to say what is right or wrong, so long as you are happy, a most dubious philosophy.

The story amendment given above would be a necessary stage one refinement because most little girls do not have so few problems as Riley. Her story is so incredibly thin, even if compared with other Disney heroes. Riley has been utterly happy and one thing has upset her. What about other children, who lose a parent and have to move in with step-siblings, like Cinderella? What about the girl whose culture insists upon an arranged marriage, like Jasmine? What about the girl who cannot shake off the creep, like Belle? What about the little orphan in the Rescuers? By choosing to tell the internal story of Riley (rather than telling the story through externals, as is usual) the film-makers essentially opted to have no story. Just to push the point to an absurd level for Disney but all too common in real life - if Riley was running away from home because she had been molested, how would her cute emotions have reflected this? Would they have cried about the loss of Goof-ball Island? I think not.

Inside Out should not be corrected to make it acceptable to a Christian audience. But we should learn from it. We should learn that the humanist is forward in owning and propagating his philosophy. But that does not mean that we should enter into a propaganda war. He acts thus because he believes in art as a means of cultural change, failing to notice that art is a symptom of belief, not a cause. It is for this reason that Inside Out can be a dire failure and yet financially successful - people like it because they already think the same way. Showing them a pretty story with good music and real characters is not going to change them. That does not mean we should not try to do better ourselves. In fact, Inside Out is a great motivation to do better because - frankly - Pixar has lost the plot.