Pixar’s “Inside Out” is a charming, vividly-imagined film with terrific comic timing. Its insights are sharp and its message accurate. So why was I the only person in the theater who didn’t sniffle?
The movie lays it out for you plainly, and it is true: Sadness allows you to empathize. Sadness brings people together by giving other people the chance to comfort and care for you, and giving you the sorrow that allows you to understand others’ hurts. At times this movie even echoes Allie Brosh’s “My fish is dead” comic about depression, which depicts the way being cheered up can make you feel much worse, and the way that emotional numbness is much worse than sadness or anger.
“Inside Out” is acute (and very, very blunt) in its portrayal of happiness as something parents expect from their kids: American kids almost have a duty to be happy. This movie gives voice to the fear and unhappiness these expectations can bring kids. It has some terrific lines (introducing Anger: “He cares very deeply about things being fair”). It’s replete with poignant images, like the golden happy memory globes turning blue as Sadness touches them.
The thing is, this is a movie that exists to teach kids how to feel their feelings. I couldn’t help being reminded of the picture books my parents would give me to help me with my own “defects of character”: Leo the Lion Takes a Bath, and all that. (“You got soap in my eyes! I HATE it when you get soap in my eyes!!”—actual dialogue, I think.) The use of characters named Sadness and Joy just took this movie too far into the realm of moral lesson, for me. There’s a workbook feeling to this movie, a whiff of the school counselor’s office.
In general I found it hard to believe that a child had reached that age with so few awful memories, persistent shames, or sins. We visit her subconscious and the great lurking fears there are broccoli and the vacuum cleaner. She’s eleven. I led a charmed life as a child, and I had accumulated more Dostoyevskyan angst by age six than this kid seems to harbor at twice that.
For all the cleverness of “Inside Out,” I was jolted from the start by its deformation of children and of mental life. I saw a feature-length sales pitch—or, worse, an indoctrination—to mold kids into beings as artificial and uniform as those created, by computer graphics, in the movie. The film is on the wrong track from the beginning, when the first view of the world, through the eyes of the infant Riley, is taken by Joy, and Joy becomes, from that point on, the default leader, Riley’s emotional captain.
In lieu of the mysteries and wonders of life, instead of big dreams and big fears, in place of the cosmic sense of childhood infinity that Terrence Malick thrillingly got at in “The Tree of Life” (the best movie about a child’s inner life that I’ve ever seen), “Inside Out” offers problems to be solved, a narrow range of a narrow life of narrow prospects and narrow experiences, narrow fantasies and narrow desires confined within the margins of a trivialized notion of what Riley’s imagination might entail.