Like Disney/Pixar’s Up (2009), and other recent animated pictures, such as Frozen, Inside Out is muddled. The story of a child’s emotions—joy, fear, anger, disgust and sadness—as characters is more of a sketch than a full-length feature.
Inside Out lacks humor. The plot feels forced. Characters are artificial. The ideas upon which the story is based, if one can make out a plot and theme, are dubious. For instance, main character/emotion joy (voiced by Amy Poehler) drives the child character and the entire movie. Is this good? Inside Out, co-written and co-directed by several people, never addresses or answers the question. This is one reason why this is not a kid-friendly movie.
Of course, I said the same thing about Pixar’s Monsters, Inc. (2001) for the same reason. Its animated interchanging of reality and an underworld of evil monsters mixed with good monsters struck me as potentially harmful to a child. I’m not an expert on child development or psychology. But I’ve noticed that Pixar’s movies, with the exception of the intelligent Ratatouille (2007) and the original Toy Story trilogy (1995-2010), tend to get lost in deep, dark and abstract messages that man is doomed in an arbitrary malevolent universe and the best one can hope for is a small slice of decency. Up pairs an abusive old man and a disturbed boy to ordinary effect. Wall-E (2008) is a bleak, depressing account of a machine with human qualities. Even the megahit Finding Nemo (2003) is bland. They each involve innocents, such as children, in chronic peril at risk of extreme danger facing imminent death.
Inside Out, which expands the sameness and spreads it thin, is similarly lifeless. An only child is uprooted from Minnesota, where she plays ice hockey, and moves with her bland, uninteresting parents to northern California, where she has trouble adjusting. Her mother and father, whose idea of parenting is to act out their arrested development with the intonation of an NPR report, approach their new lives with the enthusiasm of filing tax forms. But the family’s barely in Inside Out, which is all about sadness and joy and an imaginary and loud and obnoxious friend (a Jewish stereotype) named Bing Bong. These three, more than the three humans, dominate the plot.
What they do or attempt to do is complicated and tough to follow but it has to do with grasping and trusting emotions—rational thought is reduced to a train, as in train of thought—and restoring the child to a balanced life. Some of the applied and animated ideas, such as tears of joy and seeing a person as whole, are innocuous, fine or better than that. Others, and most, such as values as islands that change in destructive eruptions, are poorly conceived or executed and, in any case, way too abstract and advanced for this type of movie. This is the main problem with Inside Out, which is also remarkably sexist—the girl’s negative emotions are mostly male and the male is treated as a passive tool for female manipulation or sex—and the end product is manic, convoluted and bereft of humor except for a chuckle here and there. The after effect of Inside Out is a feeling I can only describe as hollow, accompanied by the vague, irritating or creeping sense that something is horribly wrong with this movie and what it’s trying to say, do or depict.
The best children’s stories about deconstructing a child’s healthy, proper development, such as books by Dr. Seuss, Fred Rogers’ televised tales on Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood, or Walt Disney’s So Dear to My Heart (1949) depict or address the child facing adversity with a strong, playful sense of life, imagination and the idea that one can make sense of the world. Pixar movies increasingly do the opposite. In Inside Out, the child faces adversity with a weak, lonely shrug, little imagination and unidentified, inexplicably conflicting emotions that practically put her at the mercy of an unintelligible world. In this sense, Inside Out is upside down as a movie for kids and those who raise them.