Inside Out does not know its audience (Robert Henderson)


Robert Henderson

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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