Inside Out

There is no reason to read a review of Inside Out before seeing it. It’s from Pete Docter and Pixar, the combination of director and studio who gave us Monster’s Inc. and Up. If you haven’t seen Inside Out yet, read no further. You won’t find any serious spoilers here, but you ought to preserve, as best you can, your sense of surprise and all the emotions that will accompany it as you watch Inside Out. It is a delight, albeit one that is equal parts laughter and tears (judging by the experience of watching the film sitting next to my wife who watched the movie through perpetually watery eyes with a perpetual smile on her face).

At this point, we should not be surprised that Pixar would give us a beautiful film about growing up – beautiful both to look at and to experience emotionally. That has been the studio’s principal stock-in-trade since the beginning. It’s a potent subject, because it’s something we all experience, no matter our age. Children are experiencing growing up; parents watch it happening in their children and remember what it was like themselves. It makes for fertile narrative soil too, because there is both great joy and great sadness mixed naturally in the process.

Never before has Pixar honed in on their constant preoccupation so directly. Inside Out’s principal characters are the emotions involved in growing up. They are watching, causing, and making sense of the changes the little girl they live inside, Riley, is going through as she deals with a stressful situation common among children.

Pixar’s decision to try to tell this story is daring, because they risk being so direct in their method that they lose the nuance necessary to tell an emotionally complex story. If Joy and Sadness are characters in the film, how can there be character growth? Normally, a character’s emotions are the things negotiating with each other behind the scenes in a story. We aren’t privy to that process, and so we are in suspense about how that negotiation will turn out. In Inside Out, we are watching that negotiation. Inside Out works because of the universality of the maturing process, Pixar’s great visual inventiveness coupled with the mystery inherent in how our minds work, and because of two outstanding vocal performances by Amy Pohler as “Joy” and Phyllis Smith as “Sadness.”

Beginning with the performances, Pohler and Smith are playing one-note characters, and they could have voiced them in a very cliched way – “Joy” as always up; “Sadness” as always down. The story doesn’t allow them to be so static, and Pohler and Smith grant the characters such subtlety, the emotions’ emotional shifts are entirely believable. Instead of seeing them change, we see different aspects of their characters, like new facets on a jewel turned slightly to the right of left. Pohler and Smith maintain what we already know about “Joy” and “Sadness” while adding these new complexities.

Pixar’s visual inventiveness proves perfectly matched to the task of visually rendering the abstract processes of the mind, like memory, forgetfulness, dreams, imagination, the subconscious, and even abstract thought itself. What could have been cliched is instead clever thanks to a generous sprinkling of cerebral gags throughout. Watch especially for a couple of incidents involving a cloud couple, and pay close attention to the background action when the story takes a trip through Dream Studios. Those bits were my favorites, though you’ll just as likely find other moments that appeal particularly to you.

Inside Out is more than inventive though. It is intelligent but not in a way that made me feel unintelligent. It is invigorating. Inside Out is the first movie that has made me wish I was a neurologist in the way that Apollo 13 makes me wish I was an aeronautical engineer, because the film features all these hints about interesting aspects of identity formation, memory, and emotional development. For instance, Riley’s mom and dad’s emotions are personified as solely female and male, respectively. Riley’s are both male and female, suggesting that gender identity is more fluid in children than in adults. Or consider the basic mechanism of the plot—the idea that our emotional reaction to memories changes over time. That rings true to my experience, but I’ve never thought about that before. Now, I want to know more.

Finally, it wouldn’t be a stand-out Pixar film if it didn’t complicate and enrich my understanding of key aspects of my faith. “There is a time for sorrow and a time for joy,” the Teacher writes in Ecclesiastes, a text essential to our faith (and a text essential to our work here at Reel Spirituality given Dr. Johnston’s work reading Qoheleth’s wisdom through contemporary films). I’ve always understood that passage as evidence that those times are distinct from one another – sorrow and joy exist independently of each other. Inside Out suggests otherwise, and I think the film is onto something. Ecclesiastes’ famous “times” aren’t meant to delineate between extremes. They are there to advocate for the importance and inescapability of everything. Both sorrow and joy are part of life, life is richer for including them both, and both are richer because of the existence of the other.

We’re all the richer for the existence of Inside Out.

You might also find these reviews of Inside Out helpful:

Christianity Today
Decent Films
Hollywood Jesus 1
Hollywood Jesus 2
Larsen on Film
Looking Closer
Reel Gospel
Reel World Theology
Think Christian