I fear to revisit pre-2010 Pixar movies. I mean, I have no desire to anyway, because I’ve seen most of them enough times to have them still memorized. But the saggy quality of the studio’s recent output makes me wonder whether they’re truly in a creative rut or if my tastes have changed to the point where their style is no longer my thing. That I didn’t care much for Inside Out while most others herald it as a resurrection for Pixar might suggest the latter. RIP childhood, I suppose.
This has no bearing on the quality of the film itself, but I have more nitpicky questions about the world that Inside Out creates than for any other Pixar — even Cars (which I never thought I’d say). Everyone is controlled by the same five emotions? And literally controlled? We have no free will, but rather are instead run by other sentient beings? What’s inside their heads? Why are these five emotions the ones in control (what makes Disgust so important?)? Why do the emotions get distinct designs, while all the other workers within the mind are the same purplish blob things? Is there some kind of caste society at work? The five emotions belonging to Riley, the girl whose brain is the main setting for the movie are sexually diverse (three females, two males), but we get glimpses into other brains, and all of them feature uniformly-gendered emotions (the same as their owners’). What’s up with that? (The real reason, of course, is that a movie with too many female characters would scare executives, but let’s have fun.) The plot revolves around two of the emotions getting lost in Riley’s mind along with her core memories, the removal of which from headquarters causes her “islands of personality” to collapse. So she… has no personality? How does that even work? And how — okay I’ll stop now.
Anyway, I’m sure I’d fixate on these things a lot less if I liked the movie more (… no, I probably still would, because I’m a despicable nerd). The life of the mind as depicted in Inside Out is less meant to stand up to heavy scrutiny than it is to act as a precisely-calibrated feels delivery system. It’s the apotheosis of the Pixar method for emotional effect. They have finally figured out how to cut out all narrative middle men and straight-up tell the audience how to feel.
The studio has been fine-tuning its strategic, questionably graceful manipulation for years. Its power was first glimpsed in Toy Story 2 and hit what was once its height with the opening sequence of Up. Pixar has a supervillain-tight grip on our collective middle-class anxieties and sense of nostalgia for childhood. And Inside Out shamelessly exploits both — Riley has been put in crisis by her family’s moving across the country, and the story heavily features her nearly-forgotten old imaginary friend. Once Pixar tried to make you feel bad for throwing out your old toys; now you must regret letting go of your imaginary friend, you monster.
I’m not impressed by any of it. The translation of the inner workings of the human mind to an anthropomorphic environment mostly consists of literalizing a bunch of turns of phrase. There’s a “train of thought” and a “subconscious basement” and a movie studio that produces dreams, so on and so forth. It’s pretty lazy, for the most part. And I don’t care what happens to Riley — the movie paints her distresses in dully simplistic strokes. Yes, everything is of outsized importance to a kid, but I can’t really sympathize. It doesn’t help that the end stretch builds its stakes around Riley planning to run away from home, which is way too absurd a course of action to give to an 11-year-old, even if she’s depressed or lost her personality or whatever.
There are flashes of actual creativity. The movie’s best part sees wayward emotions Joy (Amy Poehler) and Sadness (Phyllis from The Office), along with aforementioned imaginary friend Bing Bong (Richard Kind), travel through Riley’s abstraction center. In a funny, visually exciting, and genuinely tense scene, the trio are progressively broken down into simpler components, and have to try to get to the exit before they’re rendered into inert base signifiers. It’s the only time the film truly lets loose with the potential its premise promises. Much of the rest of it is content to settle for easy metaphors, gags, and setups, and as a result manages to elicit cute, pat laughs at best.
Inside Out has all the technical proficiency we’ve come to expect from Pixar. Yet while it’s handsomely presented, it has little real visual verve. The outside world is purposefully prosaic, of course, but Riley’s head has to be one of the least imaginative cinematic mindscapes yet devised. Most of it is a labyrinth of shelves containing samey memory orbs. Pixar’s losing obsession with ordered worlds is at cross purposes with any interesting depiction of a literally limitless universe. There are nice touches, like the weird, shimmery effect you see if you look at the emotions up close, or the exaggerated movements they act with. But the whole is not the sum, etc.
Inside Out is calculated for broad appeal, and I find myself growing less and less tolerant of such filmmaking. Perhaps if I ever go back to old Pixars, I’ll find that they’re the same way. It’s not even that broad appeal is a bad thing; the way this movie goes about it is so safe an inoffensive and non-risky that I was mildly bored the whole way through. If I were a hack, I might put together an elaborate joke about how my Disgust must have taken control throughout the whole thing. But I’m totally above that. Obviously.