I am writing this review in the lobby of the BFI almost two months after watching the film. I watched it travelling across the world to take some time to get some distance from my daily affairs in order to get some perspective on them. Sitting in the dark, alone, having sated my immediate urges for escapist drivel, I decided I’d join the rest of the world and see what was so great about Inside Out. Dr Kermode had idly speculated that it looked like the best chance since Up for an animated film to win best picture, but like me had A Girl Walks Home Alone At Night as his best film of the year so far, which doesn’t lend hope to that cause. I laughed and I cried, but I never shook the sensation, recognisable from the Spielberg cannon, that I was a plaything in the hands of the film, making me emote as it saw fit. Like one of those revenge movies where they kill the girlfriend they made you like in order to drive McMacho to McMurder. It takes a willing suspension of disemotion rather than disbelief.
What I want to do is counter-read some of the surface messaging in this film, but I’m aware that what I really want to write about is the film as a proxy for my own emotional life. Which means that one way or another, manipulative or not, this film got under my skin a bit and made the reading I want to offer personal. All criticism is personal, and I always say that rational or not, it is always based on your emotional response to a work. But for all of us there are films which go beyond reflecting our emotions back at us, which go beyond simulating an emotion we vicariously feel for others, that become a perfect cypher for parsing our emotional experiences out of the subconscious. My emotional heavyweight is the classic, the ubiquitous, the most emotional movie of all time, Casablanca. I watch Casablanca whenever I’m falling in love. Or out of love. Or trying to decide what to do with my life. Or regretting what I’ve done. I’ve watched it a few times in the last couple of years. Whether Inside Out joins the very short list and loses an inherent emotional valence for me is yet to be decided, but for now, writing about it is just writing about myself.
The key thing I want to disagree with is that there are such things as “core memories”, around which our personalities are based – or more precisely, I want to argue that the film argues against it. Riley is a character defined by Joy, who is clearly the most important emotion of the five. She’s a kid who processes things through that lens. Her father, in contrast, is obviously primarily Angry, and her mother, Sad. These emotions determine how “core memories” are treated and perceived. The film’s surface represents that the loss of the core memories is what affects Riley, but what’s really going on is that she’s losing her ability to process those memories, because the balance of power between her emotions is changing. On a “physical” level, Joy and Sadness take the memories and go into the depths of Riley’s mind, but the metaphorical reading must be that Riley doesn’t know whether to be happy or sad about the memories she has in the past. This is represented as a kind of depression, a loss of personality, as the other emotions try and simulate Joy – but it’s far simpler. Can we enjoy the past, when it is disconnected from the present? Joy and Sadness are represented as being in real danger – but psychic trauma isn’t really like that. The stakes aren’t whether Riley will ever feel those emotions again, but whether she can choose how to process her past experiences.
My reading is therefore that these “core memories” which apparently define her personality are exactly the opposite. They are a reflection of her personality, so that if “Hockey Island” were really forever lost, a new Island would be created (under Joy’s leadership) that would fulfil precisely the same function; allowing Riley to process and locate in an experience the emotion which is her real core personality. It is the power balance between the emotions, not the contents of the memory, which determine Riley’s personality. Sadness, over the course of the movie, moves from being completely marginalised, to playing a role in her life. Despite the restoration of the “core memories”, Riley will process the world differently, and this is symbolised by the mixed memory. Of course, as Joy’s fast-reverse and fast-forward of the core memories shows, that’s always the case. All of human experience is a mixture of elements, and our personality affects the emphasis we place on the components.
It’s not easy to think that the islands Riley has created will be really durable, or that they should be really durable. When I watched Riley fail at her Hockey trials, I obviously felt sorry for her, but at the same time, at any age your hobbies and interests will vary, and I know many people whose youthful successes were not carried on, and whose adult successes are not easy to locate in childhood experiences. In particular, her “Friendship Island” is categorically doomed, as the friends who created the core memories at the heart of the island are simply not available. Yet, the film, by restoring the Islands, denies this basic truth, and by under-playing the new role Sadness will play, obfuscates the basic personality change that has occurred in Riley. The film presents itself as having a happy ending, when it is literally a sad one.
Years ago the bio I wrote for my LiveJournal said “[n]obody can be truly honest about themselves, but nobody should be too pretentious to even try”. Inside Out falls exactly into this paradox, in that its characters want to bring expression to the most basic human experiences, but when they try they still cannot perfectly perceive themselves; since the characters in the film are components of Riley, they also cannot perfectly perceive each other. There remains throughout this film the remnants of an imperfect view, an ambiguity of meaning that is essential to making a work adaptable and durable. Up’s first 10 minutes were the best short film I’ve ever seen, but I never think about it, and I never rewatch it, because all it means is what it says. Inside Out has many more flaws, but paradoxically, I think it’s better for it.
I gave it a 9/10 on the IMDB, but as with any film over an 8, that’s a value judgement that needs to be returned to with time and distance, and possibly more than once. The repeatability of that sense of questioning will be this film’s true measure of value.