Inside Out does not know its audience

Main Voice cast

Amy Poehler as Joy

Phyllis Smith as Sadness

Bill Hader as Fear

Lewis Black as Anger

Mindy Kaling as Disgust

Richard Kind as Bing Bong, Riley’s long forgotten imaginary friend

Kaitlyn Dias as Riley Andersen

Diane Lane as Riley’s mother

Kyle MacLachlan as Riley’s father

Director: Pete Docter

This is a film with high ambition. It is an  attempt at explaining the workings of the human brain whilst tugging the heart strings of adults and children  by telling the story of an unhappy and insecure child.

At the centre of the film  is an  11-year-old girl named Riley. Her parents have just moved from Minnesota to San Francisco. As a consequence Riley feels isolated and lonely because she has left all her friends behind and everything else which was familiar.

Most of the action takes place inside Riley’s mind, although there are occasional  forays into the interior consciousness  of her  parents.  Headquarters is Riley’s conscious mind which contains  five emotional  personifications: Joy, Sadness, Fear, Disgust, and Anger. Memories are  represented as orbs  which can be changed by contact with the five personifications.   There are core  memories  housed in a hub in Headquarters  which power five “islands”, each of which reflects a different aspect of Riley’s personality: Family Island, Honesty Island, Hockey Island, Friendship Island and Goofball Island.  The Islands sit over a memory dump where unimportant or unwanted memories are placed.   Aside from all this is an area storing  long term memories.

Joy is the dominant personification and acts as the organiser of Riley’s personality and emotional balance. . Sadness is the other important personification.  A theme running through the film is the fact that   sadness is  not just an unwonted  quality  producing misery  but sometimes  a creative force  which shifts the momentum of the mind by making memories which are sad to be flavoured with poignancy of melancholy so that they become more than just sadness.

There is an oddity with the personifications. Riley’s personifications are divided between  entities which are clearly male or female. Joy, Sadness and  Disgust are female and Anger and Fear male . On the occasions when the personifications of the parents are see the mother’s are all female and the father’s all male.  Was this just slapdash or a conscious decision? I rather suspect slapdash, but either way as the difference goes unexplained it undermines the film’s pretensions to be more than just a cartoon about a child’s negotiating of a difficult period of her life.

Joy and Sadness get accidentally swept into the maze of long-term memory along with the core values.   The rest of the film is devoted to Joy and Sadness struggling to make it back to Headquarters, which they eventually do,  while  Fear, Disgust and Anger are trying incompetently  to keep Riley’s mind  normal, there attempts resulting in the personality islands collapsing into the memory dump leaving Riley without the psychological structure to keep her on the straight and narrow and temporarily depriving her of the better angel of her personality.

Treated as an Odyssey  that is simple enough  and potentially attractive as a storyline.  But there is an insuperable obstacle to the film being enjoyable  and  developing into a well  loved Pixar classic. Inside Out  is very didactic.  To understand what the film is about it is necessary for the audience to take on board the animation’s  instruction on how the mind works or at least the film’s  version of how it operates. That raises  a very awkward question, namely, what is the natural audience for the film?  Will children of Riley’s age honestly follow what is happening?  Will adults for that matter? Or will a somewhat baffled boredom be the result?

Of course there is a second element to the film, the emotional journey of Riley. Will it appeal to pre-pubescent girls  around  Riley’s age? Perhaps but  the portrayal of the girl is what girls of that age would probably see as parents being  patronising superior and “just not understanding them” . That could  either alienate them or be something which  enlists their empathy.  But I doubt whether  it will have any attraction to  boys in the Riley age group because they would  be at best  uninterested in what girls think  and at worst actively hostile.

It is also difficult to believe that either  girls or boys of Riley’s age would have found the storyline exciting.   There is a bit of routine improbably physical cartoon action with Bing Bong , Riley’s imaginary friend  from long ago, helping   Joy and Sadness  to return to Headquarters, but there is little of that and not terribly thrilling at that. The film is so intent on showing how clever it is   – gee, whiz, we’re showing  everyone how the brain works – that those producing it have lost sight of the fact that they are in the entertainment business and their clients are first and foremost children.

That leaves adults. In many modern animations there are a host of knowing jokes for adults but here there are next to none. In fact, make that there are precious few jokes for children or adults.  That leaves emotion engagement. Critics and various mediafolk have made great play about tears flowing as they watched Inside Out,  but the sentimentality is too contrived to be entirely  convincing.

As a serious exposition of how the brain works Inside Out  is a non-starter.   To be a serious exposition it is necessary to properly understand concepts like short and long term memory. Most people will simply think that one lasts  longer than the other, when   short term memory is very short indeed (a few  seconds ) and the relationship between short and long term memory is still much debated in academic circles.  The film gives an impression of certainty where there is no certainty.

There is also a problem with the personified emotions, joy, anger, sadness, fear and disgust. These are presumably meant to be the primary  emotions  which can combine to produce secondary emotions  in the same way that red, blue and yellow are primary colours which can be  mixed to produce other colours. But is it  true that the five personified emotions are really the only primary emotions?  For example,  how would jealousy be created out of  two or more of them? Anger, Disgust  and Fear might be components of jealousy, but there is far more to jealousy than those emotions, for example, greed and  desire.

The animation has met with widespread , indeed fulsome, praise   from critics who see  the film as a penetrating and intelligent drama daringly dealing with the difficult and nebulous subjects of brain function and consciousness  as well as depicting an 11-year-old girl’s  interior world. This judgement I find utterly misplaced. Why has critical opinion been so adulatory? I suspect that it is a film which the chattering classes  feel obliged to praise because of its self-consciously serious intent.

Technically the film is first rate as one would expect from Pixar.  It looks superb and the actors providing the voices do their best to  imbue the characters with distinct personality.   But truth  be told the film is curiously  bloodless,  and whisper it quietly,  distinctly  dull.  In fact,   Inside Out has the tone of the kind of book  Victorian children had  vainly thrust upon them to instruct the child in moral improvement . There was a large component of children of the Riley age group  in the audience when I saw Inside Out . They were remarkably silent.  Was that because they were entranced or because they were unengaged?  I rather suspect it was the latter.

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Comments

  • David P. Philip  On September 29, 2015 at 12:59 pm

    Thanks for this. I got the impression from the trailer that it was a kids film targeted at young adults. I still think I’ll watch it.

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