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Inside Out‘s Restricted Range

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This post contains spoilers for Inside Out.

Inside Out was charming and I cried and everything, but what is really sticking with me is what I found unsatisfying. Among the things I love about Wall-E, flawed though it is, is its willingness and abandon about entering into darkness — literally: that dance by the spaceship is equal parts beauty and existential terror for me. I kept imagining Wall-E or Eve running out of propellant and floating off into an eternity of totally isolated consciousness. The movie opens with earth destroyed. Something bad has been allowed to happen. It was such a relief. I am so tired of fiction for children skirting around real pain and tragedy. Bambi’s mother dies. Charlotte dies. Dumbo is separated from his jailed mother for most of the movie. Kids can tolerate fiction where bad stuff happens. In Inside Out, on the other hand, Riley once lost a hockey tournament and now has had to move into a million dollar Victorian in San Francisco, poor li’l snip. She cries in class and isn’t even bullied for it. Her subconscious contains some stalks of broccoli and one clown. Even given that her life was idyllic, for a movie about emotions, it sure avoids showing a realistic range of them.

I want to watch the movie where her life is not idyllic. What if she had to move because her parents got divorced? Wall-E seemed to promise that Pixar might be willing to tell that kind of story. But now instead we get this story with stakes that are artificially ginned up and totally implausible. The plot of Inside Out is driven by mechanical obstacles to a resolution that basically has to happen: a previously exuberant 11-year-old is not going to sink into permanent anhedonia because she had to move. It’s not only that we predict a happy ending; the unhappy one wouldn’t even make sense. One of the advantages of letting bad stuff happen in stories is that it generates real stakes for the audience — maybe this filmmaker isn’t going to protect me from everything, maybe things won’t work out right in the end, and isn’t that suspenseful? But Inside Out is too obviously sheltering us. I can’t be scared for Riley the way I was scared for Wall-E.

At least some of the mechanical obstacles in Inside Out have some psychological meaning; everyone’s tears, including mine, are jerked when Bing Bong jumps out of the wagon to allow Joy to make the jump out of the memory dump. It’s satisfying that Riley has to give up an imaginary friend and the pretense that anything is possible to come to a mature understanding of loss. That said something true about growing up. But why then does Joy right afterward stack a bunch of imaginary Canadian boyfriends to launch herself towards Sadness, floating by on a cloud, and then on to HQ? There are two climaxes, one that makes sense and one that doesn’t.

And finally, because I can’t resist being an idiosyncratic and absurdly demanding psychology type who has a lot of opinions about emotions: I’m not a fan of basic emotions theories, so Riley’s apparently limited palette bothers me. I know it’s ridiculous to want them to have arbitrarily many characters, and the problems that would pose for the narrative, but still: does she never feel shame? Guilt? I think it might have been possible/funny to have them skulking in a closet, shuffling their feet and peeking out whenever they’re called upon. I even wanted to nitpick a little about Joy’s understanding of Sadness’s purpose; sadness has a broader range of functions than just drawing help and sympathy. But maybe Joy will figure that out later.

[EDIT:] In comments, I said:

In a conversation with a friend who liked it, I drilled down to the core of what I find sensibility offending here. This is a movie ostensibly about learning the value of an integrated set of emotions, including the painful ones. It’s tone and substance are both totally contrary to that message. If you want to make something escapist and fluffy with no real stakes or sense of danger, fine, although those certainly aren’t features of the art I remember thrilling and moving me as a child. But if you’re going to make a movie about accepting the full color of experience, treating your being human as a guest house, then it’s totally false to your own explicit mission to depict a bowdlerized version of the psyche (yes, of even the happiest child).

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