This weekend we watched Inside Out, the latest full-length feature from Pixar studios. And it was fine.
Riley is an 11-year-old girl undergoing the stresses of moving from Minnesota to San Francisco. In her head, five emotional managers, with Joy as their informal leader, more-or-less take turns at the controls in Riley’s mind, simultaneously expressing Riley’s personality and constructing her future personality as each experience produces a new memory to be sorted and filed.
Memories are represented as glowing glass spheres, color-coded by the dominant emotion experienced attached to the memory. In a rough metaphor for the stress of moving and of nascent pubescence, Riley’s emotions go awry as the routine of the central office breaks down, and Joy and Sadness are sucked up a tube into the memory vault, amid the dangers of the memory dump, abstract thought, and subconscious fears, desperately trying to return to central command and restore order before everything goes to h-e-double-hockey-sticks.
Unfortunately, Inside Out didn’t go much father than “fine.” Setting aside whatever triumphs of animation Pixar tackled—for I don’t appreciate the technical challenges of animation any better than any other general audience, just the results—the film seems to continue a Pixar trend of drifting slowly from the layered, nuanced experiences that brought adult audiences to Toy Story or The Incredibles in favor of simpler exploration of the human condition.
Not that Inside Out eschews adult material entirely. There was a joke about artistic deconstruction during a brief trip through a chamber devoted to abstract thought. There’s arunning gag involving a jingle from a chewing gum commercial, an earworm joke that adults will appreciate more than children could. And Riley’s invisible childhood friend is the vehicle for the by-now familiar Pixar fixation on the bittersweet nature of departure from childhood.
But for the most part, Inside Out sticks to simple expressions and simple explorations of its themes. Happy memories are good; anything else is a problem. The five emotions running the show basically get along and agree on everything, including the desirability of nothing but happy memories, which seems odd. And even though Sadness finds a reconciliation and welcoming into Riley’s emotional staff, the functional importance of sadness is barely explored, and never explained. Crises which adults know to be passing worries are presented as permanent catastrophes in a very child-like framing, which drama loses its bite when problems are fixed by mechanisms undepicted.
Depicting the reconstruction of Riley’s internal state might have been too dull, or strained the metaphor too hard, so perhaps skipping that sequence was for the best. The punning metaphors, such as catching a ride on the train of thought or the disposal of fading memories into the memory dump, get confusing when persisting in scenes past their introduction. The script could have used the dextrous genius of Norton Jules (author of The Phantom Tollbooth), nimbly keeping all those balls—metaphorical and literal—in the air, and in sight, only so long as they make sense, and never dragging a metaphor out too far. But the likes of Jules are admittedly hard to find.
If that sounds like Inside Out was a failure, or a downer, then it sounds harsher than it should. The tears jerk, the roller-coaster ride roller-coasts, and I laughed out loud several times, mostly during brief visits to other characters’ five-emotion control rooms. (“Girl! Girl! Girl”) Inside Out is, as I say, fine. It’s a good movie for children, with sufficient scraps tossed to their grown-up chaperones. Speaking personally, however, I find it ironic that for all the attention Pixar lavishes on the idea of growing out of childhood, and its reputation for treating that transformation with an adult perspective, Pixar movies seem to slide ever-nearer towards simply being kids’ films, and that saddens me. Animation needs all the champions it can find for the idea that animation is not (just) for children, that children’s movies aren’t animation, and that “family entertainment” doesn’t mean “for kids.”