Inside Out: subtlety, sadness and empathy

It’s been a few weeks since I saw Inside Out, but I haven’t been able to stop thinking about it since. This is generally a sign that it’s time to arrange my thoughts into something resembling a coherent blog post.

First off I should confess that I don’t really get films. I mean: I watch them, I (usually) understand their storylines, I recognise the hard work that goes into making them, but I just don’t have the reverence some people seem to have for the medium. As a rule I don’t sit in the cinema as the credits roll and think “now that was a great film”. But in the past, Pixar has been responsible for at least two notable exceptions to this rule (namely Finding Nemo and Wall-E – though I also liked Brave enough to write a blog about it), so I was very interested to see what they would do with the idea of personified emotions, a premise so far up my street that I practically live in it.

There will be spoilers, so if you haven’t seen the film, see it as soon as possible (assuming it’s still playing) and then come back and read this. Or just see it and don’t bother reading this, since it is a perfectly self-contained work of art, to which my blabbering will probably add very little.

Major Spoilers barks: “MAJOR SPOILERS BEGIN HERE!”

At the core of Inside Out is a question not many stories tend to ask, despite the fact that it seems fairly central to the experience of being human: what is the point of sadness? The question is posed very early on, but it’s phrased as a joke so like an idiot I didn’t notice it was actually the set-up to some of the more profound and emotional moments in the latter half of the film, where we finally realise that Joy and Sadness do not have to be enemies.

I don't know much about fair use law, but I think I'm more likely to be allowed to use this image if I say something about it. So … um, I like it. It's a good image.

I don’t know much about fair use law, but I think I’m more likely to be allowed to use this image if I say something about it. So … um, I like it. It’s a good image. Like how the film is good, only the film is even better.

This is where I think Pixar did things differently from other filmmakers who might have tried to make a film with this basic premise. Because the most obvious route, if you want to put the main character in a bad psychological place, would be to remove Joy from the control room and leave Sadness there to take the reins. But instead, Joy tries too hard to retain control and as a result both she and Sadness are exiled. In many ways this is a much better representation of what actually happens when a person is emotionally damaged, when they shut out other people, when they get depressed — whatever you want to call it. And it allows for a resolution much more complex and meaningful than in the parallel universe version of the film, where the evil Queen Sadness is finally defeated by wise and incorruptible Joy.

Another ingenious element of the film — and I’ll admit this is something that films, especially Pixar films, can do very well — is the way it creates a vocabulary, a visual language all of its own, around the concept of the memory sphere thingies. From the beginning we are taught what these look like, how they are created and stored, and what the different colours mean. Not only does this provide a lot of intelligent laughs along the way, but by the end we are primed to understand exactly and implicitly what the new, multicoloured core memory means, without the characters needing to say a word. The visual vocabulary that has been established over the course of the film is subverted in a way that conveys a new meaning, a meaning that never has to be explained in conventional terms. It’s all there in the imagery, so it bypasses the linguistic circuits of your brain and just grasps you by the heart.

But on reflection, I think the best and cleverest thing about Inside Out is how mundane the Out part is. Again, Pixar did not take the obvious route: it would have been so easy to cook up a melodramatic real world story to trigger all the fireworks in Riley’s head. But no, they keep it subtle and restrained — just a few little nudges which begin the process of her inner world absolutely falling apart.

To me, this only adds to the story’s power, because it demonstrates how seemingly trivial things can have a serious impact on a person’s psychology. Especially in fiction, people are often expected to display superhuman emotional strength, or be criticised as weak. If we didn’t see Riley’s inner world, I have no doubt that a portion of the audience would go: “oh for god’s sake, the spoilt little brat’s sulking and running away and crying just because she had to move to San Francisco?” But because of the metaphorical world so lovingly crafted by Pixar, we understand. We feel what she is feeling. The everyday trials of growing up, so easy for cynical adults to scoff at, are portrayed as heartbreaking, world-destroying — which is great, because that’s exactly how they feel to the person going through them.

So not only is Inside Out a beautiful, funny, inspiring experience from beginning to end, it has caused me to think long and hard about the purpose and potential of storytelling. I certainly can’t think of another film that creates empathy in such a unique, vivid and powerful way. And in an age that sometimes feels characterised by a horrifying lack of empathy for other human beings (see pretty much every newspaper currently being printed in the UK, the comments section of every online article and video, etc.), perhaps that’s something art should aspire to more often.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *