Sunday, June 21, 2015

Inside Out

(Mild spoilers below.)

I'm in in the minority on this, but I was disappointed with Inside Out.

There is no question that Pete Docter has the ability to emotionally affect an audience.  My problem with this film, and on reflection with Up, is that he focuses too much on invention, and it gets in the way of the characters and the story.

In Up, everyone remembers the montage of Carl's life with Ellie.   Nobody talks about the absurd age and inventions of Charles Muntz.

In this film, what people will take away is the characters inside Riley and the ending, but the world they inhabit is overly complicated.  There is an lengthy journey for two of the characters inside Riley's head and there are all sorts of rules of the world that are introduced too conveniently.  Characters and props appear during the journey that change the audience's sense of what is possible and what is not.  It's hard to generate suspense when you never know when the equivalent of a magic wand will show up to help the characters. 

The problem is structural.  The film makers had too many good ideas to fit in the beginning, and so by introducing them mid-film, the world was continually redefined to the detriment of the story.

Here's a spoiler.  If Joy can be sad and cry, why can't the other characters inside Riley's head go beyond their dominant characteristic and grow as well?  The problem is that if you have characters who are incapable of change, you have no drama.  But introducing change into one character reveals the other characters as nothing more than stereotypes, no matter how entertaining.

The solution would have been to spend more time outside Riley.  Because she contains conflicting emotions, it's natural that the drama should have played out there.  But Riley is a puppet who can't experience emotions outside of what the characters in her head allow.  While her experiences moving to a new city, entering a new school and screwing up in front of peers are all easy for the audience to empathize with, they are done in a perfunctory manner.  We never see her interacting with the others in her school and so her experiences are left at the level of the generic.

Inside Out contains a lot of good character comedy, inventive concepts and striking design.  However, the dramatic logic of the film often gets broken under the weight of those things, and that's why I find the film unsatisfying.

17 comments:

Stephen said...

I hate to tell you this, but literally every movie ever made has some kind of plot hole or logical problem.

Example: Toy Story.

If Buzz thinks he's a space man, why doesn't Woody believe he's a cowboy?
Why does Buzz freeze when Andy comes in the room if he doesn't believe he's a toy?
Why do some toys talk even if they don't have mouths and others can't?
Why do they all speak English and how do they learn it?
Why does nobody notice the toys running down the street? Or how does Andy's mom NEVER hear them talking or moving when she walks past Andy's room?
At what point do toys become sentient and self aware that they are indeed toys?

The reason why you probably didn't notice these things, is because you were too invested in the story to. So the reason you didn't like inside out is because you didn't like the character or the characters or the story enough to suspend your disbelief. I hate Harry Potter, and I enjoy making fun of how little it makes sense; but I would still like it if I actually cared about the characters or the story.

Pixar Post said...

I have to mirror Stephen's comments as well. In addition, when you say "Nobody talks about the absurd age and inventions of Charles Muntz." I believe that the genre of animation allows you to play with certain things that you don't have to explain fully. Heck, should Wile. E. Coyote have to explain why when he places an order for an Acme product that a mailman immediately speeds into frame and delivers a package with the requested products? That's doesn't take away from the story - it moves it along. Or, looking at it another way, why should an animal ever be able to talk or interact with another human - because it can and because it's animation. Sorry, I can't get behind you on that part that things have to live in a world of logical explanation.

Also, when you say, "If Joy can be sad and cry, why can't the other characters inside Riley's head go beyond their dominant characteristic and grow as well?" The other emotions haven't learned it yet at the point you're mentioning. Joy was the first one to change and be able to adapt because she was the focal point of the movie (it made sense for her to change first as she was the one who's journey we were watching). An example of another character changing would be Anger (at the end) saying, "Mom is pretty cool" while smiling. He had adapted to understand more than just anger - it was just done at the end of the film when it was wrapping up.

I don't think there is ever a perfect script that you can't find some flaw or inconsistency with. Just don't let the analysis of the end product get in the way of the enjoyment. I have a friend who is a chef and he never was able to enjoy a meal after he completed his training since he was always analyzing food rather than experiencing it. It's a sad thing when education and experience gets in the way. That's not a lazy way of saying it's OK to not follow any structure - but I'm just saying that maybe a little leeway is OK.

Pixar Post - T.J.

emily said...

Gotta agree with the others. Joy being more than a one-dimensional representation of happiness and Charles Muntz's age are, well, almost petty reasons to shoot down a script that doesn't even aim for a hardboiled realistic world. I will agree that if you think about the plot, Riley does seem like a puppet to the emotion characters, but you could even make the argument that the characters are being controlled by her. This is an allegory.

Elliot Cowan said...

I didn't like Inside Out either.
Mostly I thought it was dull.
The entire film is exposition - every scene is about the characters telling us what they're doing and why, and nobody ever shuts up.

Anonymous said...

The movie had a ton of issues but none of it will really matter to audiences because the two tearing up scenes carry enough emotional weight for most audiences to walk out of the film satisfied, and the visuals and performances carry everything else.

But to go more in depth on the issues:

The film is trying to be an adventure film, and it's trying to be a metaphor. But the desire to be a metaphor undermines the action, and the action doesn't map to the metaphor.

If the film is an action film, and not a metaphor, then it's the story of five pilots and their very complicated machine that they are trying to correctly navigate. This is actually fine in theory; Osmosis Jones took this approach, and though it's not a great film, being set in Frank's body is not an inherent flaw. Admittedly, this is to some extent the Shark Tale/Monsters U approach where it's the trappings of a new setting overlaying a familiar one (in the case of Osmosis Jones, it's a cop film). But that's actually okay. You don't even really have to explain or justify why this setting is the way it is or how it can be different than real life. "Cars" only needs to accept its own internal logic, not real-world logic--animals are cars and that's just something you need to take at face value. In Toy Story, the toys are alive. It doesn't matter why. Joy and Sadness and Anger and Disgust can just exist, they're in a brain, they can meet Riley's imaginary friend, there's no reason why not.

If this is true, then Inside Out isn't satisfying because too much happens by authorial fiat; whether a character's action succeeds or not, or its outcome generally, seems almost random. Should Joy try to walk the thin bridge back to HQ? Oh, no, because that island is about to crumble and take the bridge with it--but Joy couldn't have known that going in, and neither can the audience (so there's no dramatic irony there either). Should Joy go up the tube herself so that Sadness can't corrupt the core memories? Oh, the tube fails. (And also we're never given a reason to want the core memories to become completely sad, and we don't know if that means the islands won't be powered any more, or really what the repercussions of that would be at all?) The decisions that characters make don't feel particularly weighty because we don't know enough about the setting to make any kind of informed estimation of the situation. Is the clown dangerous? Was Bing-Bong going to be thrown into the pit of the forever-forgotten anyway? If he's stashing memories of her with him (and there are enough for him to go through and pick out his favorites), then what prevents Joy from having one of those memories recalled, bringing back the notion of Bing-Bong to conscious thought? If Joy never finds her way back to HQ, is it that Riley can't do things that'll make her happy, or will she be unable to experience happiness, or both? Why does accepting an idea lock out all emotions except Sadness? Why does a new console automatically emerge? Why can't memories be recovered from the pit of forgetfulness if they can ride clouds around (deciding the cloud's direction and altitude, as seen)? Or making human ladders out of imaginary Canadians? You're told things are at stake, but you have to take their word for it because it doesn't correspond to any internal logic. Additionally, if it's just an action movie and not a metaphor, then there's not much to show for it at the end. The personalities of the main cast aren't seemingly affected, it's just status quo with better toys and a more even distribution of labor. The Riley-bot got off the bus and went home.

Anonymous said...


Furthermore, I think the film takes a lot of shortcuts and exploits people's feelings. Sorrow, grief, and angst are basically universal (and Riley still feels these things: she's still making blue memories if not core ones). That's a given. But it feels very manipulative to then imply it's a good thing that you should want in some capacity. Why? "Sadness helps you relate to people who are also sad" is tautological and you could say that about any of the emotions. It is in no way a unique property of sadness. And in the film, the characters decide whether you should do something that causes you to feel an emotion. Joy decides to make Riley imagine her new room. Sadness actually makes Riley cry in class; she wasn't doing that while Joy was in charge. Well, that's not fair, it seems the emotions also decide how you'll respond to something that happens to you? But in that case, if you can feel happy about something or see the bright side ("we can still get pizza") then why is being sad better? Of course, we'd find her annoying/broken if she were sad when she was "meant" to be happy, but it's weird for the audience to be making this kind of judgement about the "right feelings" for another person, especially when it's "you should feel bad right now for reasons outside your control". Like we object to the idea that Riley could be happy through everything? Because that's not "natural"--but it could be, it could be natural for Riley, if that's how her personality approaches problems (impromptu paper ball hockey). Or, we might perceive sadness of a tool of learning, the stick to joy's carrot, but that is definitely not the film's angle. And it can't take that angle, really, because Riley has very little to learn from, because it's shit being dumped on her. She didn't make the decision to move or for her dad to be an asshole. The film is essentially using "because you know that this is how it is" as a crutch, and "because" is not good enough of a reason for me, not to mention it's a non-statement on behalf of the filmmakers.

Stephen said...

It's amazing how much more cogent the above comment is. I haven't seen it yet, so I can't speak to the quality. It just doesn't seem fair to use a plot hole as an excuse for why it's a bad movie. Even something as ridiculous as the Wizard of Oz, with all its contrivances, still works on an emotional level. If the film is doing that, that's what counts.

Mark Mayerson said...

Anonymous, your first comment does a better job than I did when I said that the focus on invention gets in the way of the story and the characters.

Stephen, the issues that I alluded to and that Anonymous covered in greater detail prevented the film from working on an emotional level for me. Certain scenes worked emotionally, but great stretches of the film did not.

Stephen said...

I can accept that I guess. I just didn't feel like it was explained all that well.

Given, as you admit, this negative review
is a rare exception to the generally positive ones, I'll still be going in with high expectations.

Elliot Cowan said...

Good work anonymous.
Well said.

Anonymous said...

If you cannot get that the story is all about Riley sifting through her emotions, the plot becomes an adventure story through weird locales with no real stakes, and if you don't identify the main character as Riley, the only other really developed character with an arc through the story is Joy, with every other character and emotion being one-note and incomplete without the whole. It becomes forgettable, and since I really like the moral here, I find that sad.

Anonymous said...

I just wanted to say that the two comments by "Anonymous" above are the most intelligent things I've read about this rather unsatisfying (for me) film.

Nearly all Pixar films end with some kind of chase or race, with a variety of wild obstacles tossed in our protagonists' way. "Inside Out" seemed to bare the arbitrariness of that convention, since those obstacles--the long "bridge" for example--had nothing to do with the heart (or should I say brain) of the story. I got the distinct feeling that the filmmakers came up with a charming premise, and then ran out of ways to meaningfully extend it, so they fell back on some banal action-movie commonplaces.

As a metaphor for emotion management the film felt pretty incoherent to me. But Pixar movies tend to share with other summer blockbusters a certain thematic incoherence; I sometimes wonder if it's deliberate, rather than just a byproduct of committee-think.

Matt B said...

I also strongly disagree with "While her experiences of moving to a new city, entering a new school and screwing up in front of peers are all easy to empathize with, they are done in a perfunctory manner." While you COULD say that Riley is perhaps a narrative second fiddle to the story/journey of Joy & her other Emotions for most of the film, perfunctory the Riley scenes are not. Nothing would work without her scenes. You could continue tweaking, changing & inventing the universe of the emotions as long as they always somehow came back to Riley in some way. That is where the beauty & impact of the films comes from, its from the interplay between the "Real Context" Riley scenes & the "Imagined Context" of her Emotions. It's not either or, or that one should bow or break in the presence of the other. They are the story equivalents of our Straight against Curve, Warm against Cool or Light against Dark. Personally I feel that these two contexts are needed in our Art. The fundamental thing about stories & art is that we all draw from the same pot creatively. That pot being this planet and our lives, comprehension of and experiences while on it. As fellow human beings many of those experiences and basic comprehensions are shared ones. Drawing upon ideas from those fundamental experiences simply reiterates our inter-connectivity as a society and as the same biological creatures. It’s a huge part of how we relate to and understand one another and how we learn.
Authenticity > Originality
It is not impossible to create something “original”, something that has never been seen or produced before. But if it were something that no one else could understand or relate to, something “original” just for the sake of it being so, it would be meaningless. Authenticity is the key to that illusive quality we call ‘originality’ in an artwork. It is this personal aspect of a work that becomes the underlying point of connection, which (hopefully) can be processed and understood by others “Good Art” is that which is able to communicate and connect with other people. At the end of the day I find this an amazing and encouraging lesson about the nature of story telling.

References & Previous postings on this very interesting topic/subject of story logic:Logic Police: MichaelBarrier Comments, Brian McD Invisible-Ink-Blog theme beats logic, Bulletproof Story Logic - Mark Kennedy

Matt B said...

Mark, your core dissociation with the story is: "Characters & props appear during the journey that change the audience's sense of what is possible. It's hard to generate suspense when you never know when the equivalent of a magic wand will show up to help the characters." And I agree, this can be something that if over-relied on, breaks the umbilical connection to a story, the suspension of disbelief. And to be fair, I also agree with a large portion of the examples & sentiment Anonymous said with "Deciding the cloud's direction & altitude & making human ladders out of imaginary people for convenience. You are told things are at stake, but you have to take their word for it, because it doesn't correspond to any internal logic". I had these misgivings too. My question is; with any creative fiction, how do you NOT have a level of this creep into a story that isn't set purely in a directly relatable reality to our own? aka a fantasy setting. So here is an alternative viewpoint to the "Too much happens by authorial fiat" statement.

The problem is that in creative fiction A Real World Context = the extrapolation of the fictional concept in 'Real World' (beyond the screen) terms. I don't believe this always needs to be used in a critics deconstruction of a fantasy film, and here is why. In fiction you can bend rules, break them, make new ones and even IGNORE certain things that aren’t fundamental to the story that you are trying to tell. Using Toy Story as an example; had John Lasseter & Crew chosen to have Buzz remain active instead of simply going inert with the other toys, then the story team would probably have had to dedicate a whole 10 minutes of their 81 minute film simply to resolve that one issue. None of which would have really helped the story to progress in the way that they intended it to.

In trying to create, do or even say anything you have a limited scope; the first being time, the second being context. Trying to say, point out or cover everything in a fiction so that it SOMEHOW matches with the scrutiny of a real world context is absurd. The filmmakers of Toy Story chose to trim the fat and left that logic flaw there because taking the time to “explain” everything about their fiction in a REAL WORLD CONTEXT applied to it by ‘critic over analysis’ would only draw out or subvert the intent of their film. I can see similar reasoning with ideas in Inside Out & other fantasy based film. Having a logic flaw isn’t necessarily a sign of bad film making. In fact, to me it can reiterate that the filmmaker was clear about where they wanted to spend their time and what they wanted to say with it. Use the K.I.S.S principle, tailor your reality and omit any “logic” if it doesn’t add anything to the context of the story that you are seeking to tell.

Mark Mayerson said...

Matt B said, "Having a logic flaw isn't necessarily a sign of bad film making." I agree, but I think you've got things backwards. The logic flaws in Inside Out are not what made me find the film lacking. I failed to be emotionally involved in the film, and seeking an explanation I realized all the logic flaws as the root of my problem.

What I hope to get from a film is an emotional experience. As I said, Pete Docter clearly knows how to affect audience's emotions, but only intermittently. When he's not doing that, I find him somewhat clumsy in linking up his emotional sequences. Believe me, I wanted to like this film. I saw Docter a few months ago in Toronto and his presentation was excellent and he screened the first 10 minutes of the film. I was very excited to see it. I'm sorry that the film didn't live up to my expectations.

Yes, Toy Story has logic flaws, but the film is emotionally satisfying throughout. I didn't check my watch as I did in the middle of Inside Out.

Stephen said...

Personally, I don't think any logic flaws are REALLY able to entirely make you not be able to engage in the story if the emotion is there. Even if a story makes no real sense from a logical point of view, if the emotion is strong enough, most people can get into it. We all love to mock things like Twilight for how badly constructed its narrative is; But if it really had a better constructed narrative with those same characters and message, would it be THAT much better? I don't think so; Maybe you could say it's passable, but it wouldn't be good.

Like I said before, the only reason you'd ever notice a logical problem is if the film didn't hook you on an emotional level. A film isn't a math problem; Regardless of how well or not well the internal logic of the story is done, it doesn't really have any bearing on the emotion. This is why a lot of superhero comics and sci-fi stories are kind of boring to me; Because they spend so long on the internal logic and no effort at all into why we're actually supposed to care. Pretty much any movie I don't like I can say is because I just don't care about it.

Movement Out of Time said...

One of the issues I had with the film are the emotions. I know characters need to evolve but to have joy feel sadness, worry or fear goes against the very nature of the emotion. I though it was silly to even imply it.I also thought it was refocus that they made it a point to say that fear keeps you safe.... shame on you Pete. They could have easily said fear makes you cautious.