Disney Pixar movies are cultural events in our world. No studio is as careful with their product and as successful with their product as Pixar. Yet, my anticipation level for their latest film, Inside Out, far exceeded previous expectations. I was a little concerned that I was setting myself up for disappointment. A few hours ago, I saw an early screening of Inside Out and it was the greatest movie I have ever seen. The after-movie feeling was like Interstellar, only more intense.
Everyone is familiar with the premise of the film. We interact with the main character on two levels. Riley is our 11 year old hero on the surface level, but the movie also tells its story from the perspective of her feelings. We meet her Joy, Sadness, Anger, Fear, and Disgust as they work together to give Riley the best emotional experience. That’s the part everyone knows, but that’s not really what the movie is about.
The movie is actually a coming of age story. It’s not so much about Riley’s emotions, as much as it is about how Riley’s emotions as a child are completely different from the emotions that come as she reaches her teenage years. This is the note Inside Out plays so magnificently. The story of Riley’s feelings takes the first 25 minutes of the film. It is spectacular. I was grinning from the first moment and crying from the second. Inside Out is an emotional roller coaster and the first act of the film is a steady barrage of sweetness peppered with punches to the gut. I loved it, but it was intense.
Luckily, Inside Out is also hilarious. We are treated to plenty of the customary slapstick humor as well as high brow comedy that strikes just the right balance of subtle humor and insight into the characters.
Inside Out is at its most magical during Act II. The conflict of the film and its resolution are never really in doubt as you watch the movie. The gift of Inside Out is not it’s story, but its storytelling. Act II uses the canvas established in Act I and animates a world so intimate and connected to our personhood that it seems like the metaphors are being stretched too thin. In truth, the metaphors of Inside Out are so magnificently constructed that they bend but do not break. I am reluctant to spoil anything for readers who want to see Inside Out without more direct clues and references, so I am warning you now. Extremely minor spoilers ahead. Choose wisely. If you are leaving now, go watch the movie, come back to this page, and continue reading from here.
If the the story of Riley’s feelings is the canvas, what exactly is the painting? In essence, the premise of Inside Out is that every memory we collect in our life is assigned an emotion. In the movie, these memories are colored crystal spheres. The spheres are filed in various places in Riley’s brain the way we would imagine our memories being collated. Some are discarded, others sent to Riley’s Long Term Memory, others remain local, and the most important memories are called Core Memories. These Core Memories build the thematic islands in Riley’s memory. There is an island for family, and friends, and goofiness, and hockey, among others. Throughout her day, Riley’s brain shifts between recalling old memories from relevant islands and adding new memories to those islands. Each crystal sphere is defined by a feeling and when it is added to the inventory or remembered, the memory retains its feelings. An angry family memory will be colored red, it will be added to the inventory, and it will help power the family island. That’s how it all works.
Of course, there is so much room for humor and hijinks when dealing with memories. I won’t spoil those, but the group of mostly adult theater goers were laughing hysterically when they weren’t collapsing from the emotional drain of the sentimental moments.
Without spoiling the plot, Act II is all about the crystal spheres and the islands. The story is nice, but as I said in my Interstellar review, the greatness of this film is not its story, it is the magic of its storytelling device. Pixar does not waste its opportunity. Inside Out is a battering ram of important lessons, ideas, and issues. Which leads me to a some final points.
It’s possible that one reason I related to strongly to Inside Out is because I am the father of a son who recently turned 12 years old. Inside Out was basically about him. He knew it. We knew it. And it was quite powerful to experience this movie with him. Pixar is not just entertaining us with its movies. Pixar is moving the cultural dial. There is stuff in the movie that we have been working on as a family and as individuals. Character stuff. Growing up stuff. In fact, the comparison I keep hearing in my head is to A Separate Peace: a coming of age story that encapsulates the social struggles of the high school teen, and by proxy, adults as well. Inside Out is a coming of age story that encapsulates the emotional struggles of the preteen, and by proxy, teens and adults as well.
But above all, I heard so many themes, lessons, and metaphors in the film that sounded more than just familiar to me, they sounded like me. I have been using a version of the crystal sphere memories metaphor for years. I’ve applied it to religion – that is the essence of this essay: Cultivating Positive Jewish Experiences and Rising From the Ashes of Bad Orthodox Jewish Experiences , I’ve also applied it to relationships in my pastoral work, and I’ve applied it to life in general. Seeing an idea I’ve worked through over the course of many years in my own life and in conversations with others come to life on the big screen was a powerful experience for me on a personal level. Inside Out is saying something that I have been trying to say for a little while now. That was pretty special for me.
One last thing. On a societal level, I am proud to be part of a global community that values the fundamental moral of the Inside Out story as I see it. We all want happiness and joy and we can sometimes think that we will feel happiness and joy if we don’t feel all the other feelings. But one thing our society understands is that happiness and joy can only be real when they are part of a collective of feelings. Inside Out teaches this lesson superbly, and that makes me proud.
Adults, teens, and children 10 and older should definitely see Inside Out. Younger children might not appreciate its finer themes, but there is nothing objectionable for the under 10 crowd. Families should capitalize on this film to engage in frank conversations about feelings and emotions. Use Inside Out to inspire and ignite you to make yourself a better person, friend, spouse, parent, and child.
I intend to write a follow up essay that actually discusses some of my favorite lessons and most poignant moments from the film. I also want to demonstrate how I think this all connects to religion and Judaism. But it wouldn’t make sense without seeing Inside Out. So get on that, and hopefully soon I can write a more spoiler-y analysis of Inside Out’s brilliance. Meanwhile, if you want to buy me a gift (my birthday is one month), get me some Inside Out plush from Amazon!
UPDATE: I wrote the follow up! Growing Up: What Religion Can Learn From the Magic of Inside Out
— Eliyahu Fink (@efink) June 17, 2015