Films aimed at children have a connotation of being simple and lacking any serious or critical depth. This is because with a target audience of children in mind, those in power behind such a film may shy away from more serious themes that they perceive as being too “mature.” The result from such films aimed at “children” then becomes a piece of art not as the child might imagine it but as how the adult might imagine the child imagine it. Thus, because of this adult “filter” many films aimed at children either present themes pertaining to actual children in a limited manner or become simplistic films, though it needs to be understood that a “children’s movie” is not inherently simple, and the “true” number of films aimed at children, begin to dwindle down (“The Steamroller and the Violin,” “Wanwa the Doggy” and in more recent memory, “Boyhood,” all stand as proper films for audiences of young ages); this idea of a children’s movie being straightforwardly simple is the folly of Pixar Animation’s latest film, “Inside Out.”
Riley (Kaitlyn Dias) is an 11 year-old girl who is somewhat the main character of “Inside Out.” The real stars of the film are the various emotions that live within her—Joy (Amy Poehler), Sadness (Phyllis Smith), and Fear (Bill Hader), Anger (Lewis Black) and finally Disgust (Mindy Kaling). Joy acts the de facto leader of the emotions and together the six individually “operate” Riley from a central hub within her head with the emotion best deem fit for the event at hand taking the lead e.g. as a child, Riley fell down and injured her knee and so Sadness took over, enabling her to cry.
The events of the movie begin when Riley’s family moves to San Francisco due to her father taking a new job. The fantasy of a new city and apartment temporarily eases Riley’s unwillingness to move away from her current home and friends until the move to San Francisco becomes tumultuous—the family’s furniture is delayed, Riley’s father is constantly working, the apartment is ghastly and the neighborhood seemingly uninviting. Things take a turn for the worse during Riley’s first day of school when Sadness accidentally causes her to cry in front of the class, ending up in the creation of a “core memory—“ a memory, as the film defines it, which shapes one’s character.
In a bid to fix Sadness’ error, Joy attempts to thwart the core memory’s process into Riley’s identity but in the pursuit, alongside Sadness, is flung into the fathoms of Riley’s mindscape. Without Sadness and more importantly Joy, the rest of Riley’s emotions, Fear, Anger, and Disgust, attempt to control Riley to the best of their ability until the two’s return.
The concept of “Inside Out,” that is, the personification of emotions is an endearing one that easily lends itself to the genre of children’s movies. The humor presented by Riley’s five emotions and in another scene, Riley’s mother (Diane Lane), and father (Kyle MacLahlan), transcends age barriers. Take for example the hyper-machismo appearance of Riley’s father’s emotions in contrast to her mother’s emotions’ daintier look and the relationship that results between the two. The three screenwriters—Peter Doctor, Meg LeFauve, and Josh Cooley–know how to let go and have fun and use this relationship between the emotions to make fun of sex norms and the different parenting methods between different genders. The overall humor of the emotions is further enhanced by the voice actors, whose characters seem the physical manifestation of their voices rather than the other way around.
The pitfall of “Inside Out’s” screenplay isn’t the concept itself but in the limited way it’s presented. The screenplay’s own liminality is expressed by Riley’s inability to express more than one emotion at a time and it is this inability that places “Inside Out” in the realm of children’s films seen through an adult filter.
In the manner in which Riley—a child—is relegated by her adult writers, I am reminded of a quote from Dostoevsky’s “The Idiot.” In relating his backstory to a group of newly met friends, the novel’s main character, Prince Myshkin, tells them his ideological view on children: “Children can be told anything—anything. I’ve always been struck by seeing how little grown-up people understand children, how little parents even understand their own children.” And so children in the film are shown in this same misunderstood manner but there slight hints and peeks at Riley’s growing maturity that are humorously weaved into the narrative, such as the manifestation of girlhood crushes. Yet this maturity isn’t necessarily an attitude that argues for completely letting go of the past or our childhoods. Riley’s first imaginary friend, Bing Bong—an elephant/cat hybrid who is made out of cotton candy and wears the outfit of boxcar hobos—is critical in helping Joy and Sadness on their journey.
The execution of “Inside Out’s” concept is both an asset and detriment to the film. At times it allows for some of the film’s more ingenious punchlines while everywhere else it hampers the ideas and experiences of Riley as a youth. It is important to understand that while children, more-so than their older counterparts, have room to grow and mature, that their budding as a human being is not synonymous with being simple, 2 dimensional, or lacking in expression of their emotions and thoughts.