“Inside Out” is a Reductive Take on Our Emotional Capacity

inside out review daniel dewar filmaday

At its best, “Inside Out” is a reminder of how melancholy infects memories once we realise there will come a day when we can’t produce any more.

It is also a sincere—apparently—attempt to encourage empathy.

Matt Zoller Seitz wrote that it attempts to normalise sadness:

“Inside Out” stands in opposition to an entire culture that tells people that happiness is the highest, best and sometimes only permissible emotion, and that sadness is an obstacle to being happy, and that we should concentrate all of our emotional and cultural energy on trying to eradicate sadness so that everyone can be happy.

This is true and for that, I have a small amount of admiration for it.

At its worst, it is a repulsive, reductionist take on our internal capacity to reason and understand.

Its undoing is its limited scope and it is fair to wonder why certain storytelling choices were made and whether those choices are simply based on a Pixar view of How We Should Behave.

I thought Richard Brody covered these shortcomings well in his analysis:

When a baby cries with hunger, it’s not from joy or sadness, and describing that feeling as a blend of fear and anger gets the palette wrong, makes it too negative. It’s the drive to survive, the will to exist, the life force—the principle of action itself.

Something else is packed alongside that will to exist, alongside the craving for self-assertion and gratification, which is as much physical as ethical: the sheer pleasure of active negation, of “No! in thunder,” of the Big Fuck You—or even just a little mockery or insolence—for no particular reason at all, beside the fact that doing dumb or nasty things is sometimes the only way to feel alive. It’s the feeling when, afterward, one says, “The devil made me do it”; in Pixar’s world, there’s no sympathy for the devil.

It’s ironic that many of those who don’t agree with Brody’s assessment—less a damnation and more of a call for the film to proudly declare its life force—are quick to assert that Brody is dead inside.

Despite attempts to normalise sadness, the filmmakers still work within the idea there is a right way to live and behave. Its failing is in trying to rationalise emotion when in reality these can rarely be reconciled.

It tries to explain too much of one thing when it’s not required to explain anything at all.

The great children’s films—

“E.T.: The Extra Terrestrial”, “Charlotte’s Web”, “The Black Stallion”, “Grave of the Fireflies”, “Spirited Away”, “The Sound of Music”, “The Wizard of Oz”, “Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory”

—asked their audiences to interpret grief, regret, lust, jealousy, guilt, and shame, not to reconcile them but to acknowledge their role in the spectrum of human emotion.

Children are the world’s greatest skeptics. “Inside Out” believes its audience aren’t prepared for nihilism when it should know better.