On Pixar’s Inside Out
Like most people, I’m a big Pixar fan and constantly marvel at their mastery of storytelling. I had a good feeling about Inside Out when I first saw the trailer and boldly went as far as predicting that it had the potential to be one of Pixar’s best movies, if not the best. Tall order considering its predecessors: Toy Story, Up, Wall-E, etc. But the premise was too loaded with possibilities for me to feel otherwise, and it certainly didn’t disappoint.
Stellar animation and voice acting aside, the thing that always gets me about Pixar’s movies is their consistent ability to tell clean, complete stories that not only exist within the realities they fabricate, but with the realities. Meaning that the story isn’t just dropped inside a fantastical reality—it’s dependent upon it and wouldn’t be possible without the rules established to govern that reality.
This seems obvious, but you’d be amazed how often concepts and stories are created side by side rather than together. An example of this would be Avatar, where the story was essentially picked out of time (cf. Pocahontes, 1995) and placed within this alien reality on Pandora. Pixar continually avoids this faux pas, which is in large part due to their philosophy on storytelling. They prefer focusing first on the emotional arcs and the characters driving the story. Then they let the reality the characters exist in build itself organically so as to help develop the emotional arcs.
More on Pixar’s storytelling philosophy here:
Even with these guidelines, Pixar always finds a way to keep their movies from feeling formulaic and manufactured to produce a certain result. You can always expect a little Pixar tear when you watch one of their movies, but the range of variation within this emotional resonance is nothing to scoff at. The only consistent crutch they rely on is empathy—drawing the audience into the story to make them feel for the characters on screen. Their ability to do this is astounding simply because the majority of the audience has nothing in common with the basics of the characters but will always find a way to relate to the conflict and hardships the characters are going through.
For example, I had pretty much nothing in common with Riley, the main character of Inside Out, but I nevertheless felt (strongly) everything she was going through. If empathy is the crutch you rely on to create a great story, then it’s a damn good one.
It’s worth noting that Inside Out may have been the most successful of Pixar’s films at using empathy. This is because the audience is literally inside Riley’s head and looking through her eyes. We’re intimate with her thoughts and emotions on a first level basis. It’s hard not to feel what she’s feeling.
The weird thing about this is how deep the empathy can go. Yes, we identify that we feel for Riley, but is that actually who we’re feeling for? Yes and no. Who we’re actually feeling for are the characters that are her emotions: Joy, Sadness, Fear, Anger, and Disgust. We identify first with them. Then, because they’re literally Riley’s emotions, by default, we end up identifying with Riley. If you really want to turn this into a mind-crunch, think about if Joy, Sadness, et al. had their own emotions operating an HQ inside their heads. It’s a rabbit hole, no doubt, but a fun one to consider.
So, yes, Inside Out is an incredibly strong movie. It’s complex, emotional, intelligent, and funny. It works for a wide range of audience members—from kids to adults—and is probably one of Pixar’s best achievements.
Despite all that, it’s not bulletproof.
On a conceptual level, the biggest misstep I noticed was in Riley’s memory orbs. Memories are created based on what we experience. It’s inherent, then, that they’re perceived through the first person perspective (1P); however, Every one of Riley’s memory orbs was viewable through the third person perspective (3P), as if they were short clips of Riley’s life filmed by someone standing on the outskirts of the scene. We watched her ice skating, drawing Bing-Bong on the wall, and acting like a monkey. In each memory, she sees herself as she is, which means Joy sees her as she is as well.
In the DVD commentary, the creators mentioned how when they were workshopping the story, they mapped out many possibilities as to how the story will play. I wonder if one of those possibilities experimented with the memory orbs being seen through Riley’s eyes instead of an omniscient 3P. If that were the case, it could have opened the door for a multitude of possibilities regarding an individual’s interpretation of their memories.
Interestingly, this does actually occur but not in a warped interpretation way—it happens on an emotional level. Memories are recalled throughout the movie that were first the result of Joy, and then Sadness would jump in and mess with them so Riley would recall them with a different emotional take. So I think this slight hiccup was brought up by the creators during the story-making process (pure speculation on my part), but the true weight of it never drove the through-line and had to settle for a slightly lesser role in the final cut. And that’s fine, because if warping memories based on p.o.v. really was the main through-line of the film, then it may have spiraled toward being too philosophical and trippy, which usually doesn’t appeal to a wide audience like Pixar prefers.
So why then did the orbs perceive Riley through the omniscient 3P? Well, probably because it was the easiest to do so. Remember, this is a movie, and movies are meant to communicate a story to the audience using both audio and visual means. If the memory orbs were in the 1P, we would’ve experienced Riley’s memories through her eyes, which would have been confusing. Every scene where a memory was being played, the characters would have had to explain to the audience, “Oh, this is the time when Riley…” etc. They occasionally did do this, but it was thankfully limited.
The creators of the film did graze against this problem and offered a vague explanation. They were struggling with how to have Joy and Riley interact with each other—difficult since Riley is ignorant to Joy’s existence, and Joy can’t directly influence Riley’s world—so they decided to have the memory orbs be the solution. The orbs acted like little messages to Joy from Riley, which Joy could then recall and behave accordingly in response. This also solved the problem of them never being on the screen at the same time—an impossibility given the logic of the reality created since Joy is in Riley’s head. A fun tidbit they mentioned in the commentary was an earlier solution they devised for this problem. That was to always have there be a reflective surface in Riley’s line of sight so that Joy could see Riley’s face and how she was reacting. This, they admit, felt too contrived so they nixed it.
So then the only real beef I have with this misstep is that it was never explained why the memory orbs operated this way within the reality of the characters. It’s easy to glance over and think it’s not a big deal—and maybe it isn’t—but in a movie that does a great job justifying every little nook and cranny of the concept in a clear, logical way, it’s weird that they chose to simply ignore this. Perhaps they did have a version of an explanation in a previous cut, perhaps not. Who knows.
Story-wise, the only ostensible flaw is that when Joy and Sadness are wandering through long-term memory they run into the “Forgetters” who are cleaning up forgotten memories. In this sequence, the Forgetters recall an orb to HQ that plays the jingle from a gum commercial. It’s a funny concept, don’t get me wrong, but it seems unlikely that the significance of the Forgetters being able to send a memory up to HQ would bypass Joy. At this stage in the movie, Joy was holding the five core memories displaced from HQ and knew she needed to return them in order for Riley to have a personality. If the Forgetters could simply send an orb to HQ just for the hell of it, why didn’t Joy do the same with the core memories so Riley could function again?
Logically, that’s exactly what Joy should have done, and the astute viewer would be right to question her motivations because she chose not to do this. It makes Joy look narrow-minded and oblivious. It also makes her look hypocritical. That’s because if Joy really only cared about Riley’s well-being, she would have readily done this so Riley could retain her personality.
However, Joy’s character flaw is such that she’s an egomaniac. Throughout the whole movie, she believed she was solely responsible for Riley’s happiness. This fueled her misguided belief that Riley would only be OK if she, Joy in the flesh, returned the core memories to HQ herself. She had tunnel vision, and no other way would suffice. We saw this self-centeredness in action as Joy repeatedly puts Sadness down one way or another. Eventually she realizes that she alone isn’t responsible for Riley’s well-being and that she needs Sadness—as well as all the other emotions—in order for Riley to live a fulfilled life.
The nuances of Joy’s arc are what makes Inside Out so compelling. It’s a complete emotional journey about, well, an emotion. The resolution points out an important aspect of our lives that we often overlook: the duality of human nature. There have been countless cliches written to this effect, but essentially the point is that you need sadness in order to understand what it means to have joy, and vice versa. They’re comparative opposites, and one can’t exist or function properly without the other.
(As an aside, I highly recommend diving into the DVD’s commentary, where the creators let you in on some pretty cool stuff. Of note are how the cinematographer used the camera to help express emotions and emphasize certain thematic elements, and how the creators referenced Toy Story’s relationship between Woody and Andy when constructing the relationship between Joy and Riley. And Bill Hader makes a cameo, too. Everybody loves a little Bill Hader.)