When I’m Critical It’s Only Because I Love You: Growing Up in California and Pixar’s INSIDE OUT

For Father’s Day, my sisters and my father and I all went to go see Pixar’s Inside Out. I was on the fence about this one, because neither the premise nor the aesthetic really appealed to me, and I think I still am. I think the message of the film was noble, and I think there were individual scenes of well-crafted brilliance. But it never really came together.

Before going to see it, I’d read a review that found the film disturbingly existential, even nihilistic, because–according to the reviewer–the film told its viewers that the happiness of childhood would eventually fade away and in adulthood we were all destined to be sad. If you’ve seen the film, you’ll know that this is a complete misreading. Its message isn’t that we’re all destined to be sad and increasingly so as we become adults–it’s that it’s okay to be sad; you shouldn’t have to (and indeed, shouldn’t, period) banish sadness; sadness is a part of the human condition and it is the part of you that can ask for help when you need it. To be sad is to welcome the idea that life holds troubles, and to open oneself to assistance from those around you. The film is a destigmatization of sadness, not a harrowing picture that that’s all we’re destined for as we age, or that it is something to be championed at all times.

This is a good thing.

But for a film that relies so much on sadness as communicative, healing as collaborative, and relationships as central to emotions and the understanding/experience of emotion, there weren’t really many connections being made? Even between Joy and Sadness, or between Riley and her parents, the relationships were tenuously scripted at best. We spent a lot of time in Riley’s head, but it was difficult to know her relationship to herself, and again, even her emotions relationships with each other.

Fiction is often about relationships; and maybe it shouldn’t always be. Maybe there should be room for fiction that isn’t. But I don’t know that this was the story that should have attempted that (especially since I don’t get the impression that it was doing this on purpose).

And it’s a pity, because in terms of the film’s aesthetic, Riley’s outer world was beautiful–detailed, nuanced, gorgeously rendered. But her inner world, where the bulk of the movie is set, was (it felt to me) lazily cartoonish, amorphous and un-individual. Riley had entire theme parks in her head and yet it never quite felt to me that we were seeing into a real girl’s head–something unmistakably hers and no one else’s.

This didn’t stop me from being viscerally horrified as the movie made us watch as a young girl’s personality collapsed and disintegrated; and it didn’t stop me from crying when Riley cried. But those feelings didn’t last and ultimately they didn’t add up to something that could carry the (again, admirable) message the movie wanted to tell.

The best part about seeing this movie was sitting next to my sister in the theatre. She’s the one who just graduated, and will be starting a degree in animation in the fall. She gasped when the movie was surprising, moaned when it was sad, got excited when it flashed and danced and made spectacles–she gave everything to her viewing of this artwork. And it was just so clear to me how enchanting she found it–not the movie itself (which she also was ultimately not impressed with), but the fact of its existence, the possibilities of animation, the stories you can tell and the imagination you can bring to life.

When we left the theatre we all agreed that the movie itself wasn’t really all there. My sister, in particular, wasn’t impressed by the script; I don’t know what she thought of the style. But she gave it her all anyway, and sitting next to her it was so scintillatingly obvious to me that this fall, she’s going to be doing something she really, truly loves. I mean, I love animated film, and I love giving myself over to stories–feeling all the feels, accepting whatever reality it establishes, going wherever the story wants to go in whatever way it wants to try to get there–but not like what I saw in her.

Watching her watch this movie made me feel so, so proud.


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