Paul's Internet Landfill/ 2016/ Inside Out

Inside Out

Warning: This is another spoilery review.

After the disappointment of Up I publicly stated that Pixar/Disney no longer got a "free pass". I claimed that Disney was my ideological enemy. I have argued that consuming proprietary entertainment is kind of immoral even when it is legal, if only because we spend our attention consuming and thinking about somebody else's property instead of common culture. These things are all true. To nobody's surprise, I violated all these principles by watching Pixar's movie Inside Out at the library this week. Now I am going to squander more attention in writing about it.

The executive summary is that although some aspects of the movie rubbed me the wrong way, for the most part I enjoyed the film. That is not necessarily a good thing.

I went to see the movie because people on the Internet said it portrayed psychological states effectively and accurately. I agree to some extent. The psychological metaphors used in the movie are easy to understand; no doubt brain researchers who graduate from university 10-15 years from now will visualize memory formation in terms of brightly coloured balls. Anthromorphizing the five emotions at "headquarters" mostly worked, as did the concepts of core memories, conceptual islands, and the Subconscious. I get the feeling that this movie provided its audience a language and set of metaphors that can be useful in comprehending and discussing human behaviour effectively. Disney pulled off a mean feat in creating a movie that was educational but not overly didactic.

Having said that, I doubt the psychological metaphors in the film are going to age well. There was no depiction of reason or logic (aka System 2 thinking) in the movie at all. As somebody who is driven by anxiety, I find the metaphor of creators (who construct things) and judges (who evaluate things, leading to perfectionism, anxiety and depression) more compelling than the five controlling emotions. The movie posits mechanisms about how concept formation and memory work, some of which will be refined or even disproven in years to come. But for now I think the metaphors work, and are helpful to both grownups and children watching the movie. Perhaps the most illuminating scene of the movie was the dinnertime conflict between Riley and her parents. The portrayal of conflicting perceptions in different people's heads was compelling, and illustrated how bad things can happen without anybody being a bad guy.

That leads to what I feel was the strongest achievement of the movie: there were no villains. I cannot think of another Disney/Pixar movie that manages this. There was conflict, and characters made bad decisions, but there was no evil entity twirling its figurative mustache, plotting to stop the hero for the sake of being evil. Nobody acts out of malevolence. This is astounding.

It's too bad that the movie had to stick with the tired trope of Protagonists Are Whisked Far Away And Have To Get Back Home. Somebody on the Internet pointed out that this is the plot of pretty much every Pixar movie, and it's pretty tired. Clearly the writers went with this trope so they could explore the psychological landscape of Riley's brain, but I am not sure it worked (some of the children in the audience got restless at the slow bits) and I am not sure it was necessary.

In my review of Up I complained a lot about pernicious stereotyping. In this sense, Inside Out is a mixed bag. I thought it was great that the main protagonist was a pre-pubescent girl who did not turn out to be a princess. A small detail in the film was particularly telling: near the end of the movie Riley takes to the ice at a hockey game. She gets possession of the puck, but doesn't then skate off on a breakaway, scoring a winning goal. Instead, she loses possession of the puck (!), then regains it and regroups behind the net. In other words, she plays a regular hockey game, which violates all kinds of triumphalist sports movie expectations.

I liked that Riley was not too princessy. I liked that she played hockey unapologetically. I liked her storyline in the world more than the storyline in her head, even though it was more After-School Special than it needed to be. I found her portrayal and her reactions to life events sympathetic and realistic.

But boy howdy did the movie fail in other ways. Let's accept that it is okay for Riley and her family to be lily-white. Let's applaud Pixar for having the courage of its convictions to make Riley's best friend in Minnesota white as well. At least they did not feel obligated to make the best friend the token sassy ethnic friend. (I am tempted to snark that this was the schoolteacher's role, but that is not fair.) Riley's other classmates in San Francisco were either ethnic or weird, but not both. All of Riley's emotions were voiced by white actors, I think. It is hard to pin down any concrete discrimination in the movie's casting, but I get the strong sense that the movie (and Pixar as a whole) defaults to white, with token ethnics thrown in for political correctness.

That's not the worst of it, of course. Riley's dad moved his family to San Francisco because he is some kind of tech entepreneur with a well defined job. Riley's mom is just a mom. I suppose she has some kind of activity -- maybe even a job -- that takes her out of the house, but we never find out what it is. Instead, her role is to manage the emotions of Riley and her dad, to work out logistics of moving vans, and to occasionally fantasize about Brazilian plane pilots. At least she gets a credit card in her own name, but that is hardly progress.

And then there is the body dysmorphia. Up was notable in that the fat kid protagonist Russell got to be a fat kid without the movie making a lot of fat kid jokes. Inside Out fares a lot worse. Riley, and her parents, and pretty much all of her peers are ridiculously skinny. The main emotion Joy is also ridiculously skinny, as are most of the other sympathetic characters in the movie (maybe with the exception of Riley's mom, who is still thin but at least gets to have hips). Who gets to be fat? Sad-sack Sadness is obese (and so lethargic that Joy drags her around by her ankle), and there is a fat traumatizing clown. There are also a bunch of non-anorexic comic relief figures living and working in Riley's brain, none of whom are intended to look like actual human beings. I was particularly struck by how skinny Joy was. I guess it is easy to be happy when you are thin, but was it really necessary to the characterization or the plot? I know that I am fat and overly sensitive about these things, but am I really that paranoid in noticing the negative correlation between heroic sympathy and BMI?

Maybe it is good that these systemic stereotypes rubbed me the wrong way, because otherwise I found the movie enjoyable, which frightens me. Uncle Wikipedia tells me that the script went through seven versions before being produced, and I believe it. On the one hand, the movie feels oddly personal, as if somebody (director Pete Docter, I guess) was trying to say something real instead of merely producing mass entertainment. On the other hand, every word of the script was focus tested and analyzed, and if I enjoyed the film it was because Disney intended me to. Disney is the master of psychological manipulation; I am the master of being easily manipulated emotionally -- particularly when it comes to movies, since I watch so few of them and thus have not innoculated myself against their tricks. I found that the movie was relatable and defied cliche. That was no accident. There is probably some tradeoff that Disney exploits between creative inspiration and audience manipulation, but I do not know where that line is, and it frightens me.