So I Just Saw Pixar’s Inside Out

Despite my deep and abiding love for action movies, I am not a regular theater goer.  It’s expensive to go see a movie, so Rachael and I typically reserve this particular kind of outing for occasions when we can go with friends and turn it into a more social evening.  Besides that, there might be one movie a year that I decide is worth going to see while it’s still in theaters.  The one shining exception to these basic rules is when Pixar releases a new movie; that studio has released so many great films over their history that we’re willing to pay to see their work immediately regardless of the movie’s eventual reputation (this has only steered us wrong once when we went to see Brave, which was a perfectly good Disney movie, but wasn’t really on par with what Pixar normally offers).

Given all of this, as soon as I told Rachael that Inside Out was releasing this past weekend, she insisted that we make plans to see it.

Inside Out (2015) Poster

Just guess who’s supposed to be who. (Image credit: IMDb)

Now, because Rachael and I generally dislike large crowds, we planned to go with some friends to a Monday night show, because we reasonably expected that the first night of the work week probably would draw fewer people; we were very wrong.  After some unfortunate scheduling mixups that had us arriving in the theater five minutes after the previews had started, we saw that it was packed, and we were forced to sit in the really awkward front row seats that make you crane your neck back to see the whole screen.  It was an inconvenience, but since the movie was so good it was a minor one.

First things first: this movie is excellent, and if you enjoy family movies, then you will enjoy Inside Out.  Everyone I know who saw it before me said that it was amazing, and I’m in full agreement with them.  Like all the really good Pixar movies, it does get pretty emotionally manipulative, but you honestly won’t mind because you’ll care so much about the characters.

The premise, for anyone who needs more explanation than “this is a Pixar movie and it’s really good,” is this: Riley is an eleven year old girl who is moving to San Francisco with her family from Minnesota.  Inside Riley’s head are five core emotions who help regulate how she reacts to things that happen around her: Joy, Sadness, Fear, Disgust, and Anger.  With the stress of the move, Riley’s internal emotional state gets thrown into turmoil, and Joy and Sadness end up going on a journey to try to help Riley manage the transition without destroying her personality.

It’s a very mundane story in many ways; Riley and her parents live in a world without any apparent fantastic elements, so her story remains grounded in a very simple setup of being forced to move a long way from everything she knows and struggling to deal with it.  All of the inner workings of Riley’s mind are entirely contained so that when we’re in her head, it’s a world unto itself; the emotions direct Riley’s actions in the outer world, but they’re unaware of anything else beyond what Riley perceives (as the audience, we’re treated to multiple glimpses into the minds of other characters where we can see that everyone is governed by versions of the same five emotions that Riley has, but there’s no indication that any of these characters realize there are parallel worlds in other people’s minds) so that the inner story works entirely as an extended metaphor for Riley’s actual mental health.  With those parameters, the story presents a very charming scenario where Riley’s emotions are in the process of learning just as much about themselves as Riley (the major epiphany for Joy, who’s the de facto leader in Riley’s mind, is that Sadness serves a very important purpose despite seeming like a major obstacle to Joy’s personal mission of making Riley as happy as possible).

Beyond the story, the world that represents Riley’s mind is incredibly imaginative, with clever and memorable ways to depict various mental phenomena (twenty-four hours later I’m still chuckling over the joke about why ear worms happen).  It’s a fun, colorful experience that enhances the movie to a point where I’m tempted to say it’s worth seeing just for the jokes even if you don’t have any interest in the story (of course, the story’s made all the better by the jokes, and you’ll probably end up caring about it by the time the credits roll anyway).

Theres is one odd thing that I think is noteworthy, not because it’s bad, but because it offers some interesting implications about the nature of the world itself.  Riley’s five emotions are not gender neutral entities; Joy, Sadness, and Disgust are all coded as female, while Fear and Anger are coded as male.  In the views we get into other characters’ minds, we see that their emotions take on the physical characteristics of the person they inhabit (Riley’s mom’s emotions all wear glasses, lipstick, and have long brown hair tied in a ponytail; Riley’s dad’s emotions all have short brown hair and bristly mustaches).  They’re clearly modeled on the character concepts we see inside Riley, and on a meta-level this makes sense because we spend most of our time inside Riley’s head where these characters need to be distinct, and the segments inside others’ minds are all quick jokes that need some visual shorthand to help communicate what’s similar and what’s different about each situation.  Based on what we see we can infer that as Riley matures, her emotions will mature as well, and they’ll settle into a pattern that matches her personality, which seems to include a unified gender identity.  Though this was probably territory that Pixar didn’t intend to explore, I’m wondering if the implication here is that Riley’s gender identity is fluid; while a case might be made that she’s still growing so her emotions aren’t as established as her parents’, I’d also note that in the ending we do get glimpses into the minds of some of her same-age peers, and their emotions are clearly coded uniformly along cisnormative gender lines.  Again, on a meta-level this is probably just the creators doing what works for the sight gag, but on a world-building level I’m wondering if it’s a subtle nod to the reality of non-cis gender identities.

But that’s just where my mind goes when I’m watching a movie about other people’s minds.

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