Somewhere on the way to the theater for my press screening for Inside Out, it dawned on me that I was a man over the age of 30 riding his bicycle to the local multiplex for the purpose of writing a thorough critique of a film designed to quiet noisy 10-year-olds. Complete with Jansport backpack and 5-Star notebook. What would I write in this notebook of mine? “Full of plot holes! The unicorn was poorly developed! That’s not even how lizards talk!”
Would I angrily shush the children around me when they tittered too loudly? Sigh heavily when mothers brushed past for mid-movie potty breaks, upsetting the delicate balance of my popcorn bucket?
I hoped not. At the same time, a man can’t help but wonder what he’s doing with his life when he prepares to hold forth at length about a children’s movie. It is my lot, so I persevere. Still, I must note that it’s with a clear sense of my own cosmic unimportance that I sit down to write this review.
Now then. The protagonists of Inside Out are Joy, Sadness, Anger, Fear, and Disgust (pictured), the anthropomorphized emotions that live inside a 12-year-old girl named Riley, who’s just moved to scary San Francisco from safe Minnesota. They fight for the controls to her body like it’s a giant spaceship, Anger winning out when she’s angry, Joy when she’s happy, Fear keeping her safe, etc. It’s a cutesy (ish) idea, and also the film’s fatal flaw. Because we know that no matter what happens in this fantastical world inside Riley’s mind, the only possible outcome is that a little girl is going to be happy. If this was a French movie, or if Herzog had directed, there might exist the possibility that the girl would end up sad, or existential, or killing herself, but this is a Disney movie, so it will end with a happy little girl. The worst that could possibly happen along the way is that she might be sad for a few minutes. Dinosaurs and spaceships and Tonka trucks it ain’t.
The conflict is all internal. Nemo’s dad had to search the ocean for his son, Wall E had to win EVE’s heart and save the planet, Ratatouille had to become a great mouse chef, but Inside Out can only really end with “happy girl.” It’s not about the inevitability of the ending so much as the dull inevitability. I figured Nemo’s dad would eventually reunite with him, but that was about a fish who journeyed halfway across the ocean. This is about a kid who goes to school. It’s all hopelessly touchy-feely, wike a widdle kid’s feewings are the most important thing in the universe. And of course Pixar’s touchy-feeliest movie had to be set in San Francisco. F*CK YOU, NO ONE LIKES BROCCOLI ON THEIR GODDAMNED PIZZA HERE EITHER.
With such a limited universe, you wonder who this movie is for. It’s pretty easy for me to understand the kid-appeal of talking trucks, clown fish, wacky-looking monsters, or even panda bears who learn kung-fu. But personified emotions? …Eh. Inside Out feels like it wants sensitive parents to think it’s cute more so than it wants kids to think it’s cool. The message it delivers isn’t nearly as new-agey obnoxious as you might expect under the circumstances (a story about childhood where feelings are king), but it still feels like a story the school psychologist might have used to teach kids about their feelings (while they secretly snickered about her jade jewelry and flowy shawls). “Get in touch with your feelings, you guys!” It manages to feel infantilized and aimed above kids’ heads at the same time.
The sad part is, a ton of incredibly clever moments get stuffed into this doomed premise to try to make it work. There are enough moments of isolated greatness that you almost forgive the rest. Like when Joy, riding Riley’s “train of thought,” spills two boxes, one marked “facts” and the other “opinions,” mixing them all together. A friend tells her “just leave it, no one will know the difference.” Or when the custodians responsible for clearing out useless memories keep re-plugging an obnoxious commercial jingle into the memory bank as a joke. (Why is that dumb song stuck in my head?! It’s funny because it’s true!)
That stuff was great. As was Richard Kind as Riley’s imaginary friend, Bing Bong (I absolutely love his voice); really the only character with an interesting design. Rarely have there been so many moments of isolated greatness stuck inside a story so inexorably lame. No matter what the characters accomplish in Inside Out it all basically amounts to whether bland Riley is going to smile when her bland dad hugs her. It’s a little nauseating. Sure, this scene is incredibly mundane, but think of the feelings!