The Dramatic Layer Cake of Inside Out

It’s interesting how fan communities often lionize the idea of “thematic depth” in stories, as if fiction with an underlying philosophical message is somehow more worthy than works that are largely concerned with having a good time. It makes sense for a few reasons – we see complexity as an inherent good, we see works that are trying to change the viewers’ minds as more challenging or morally profound, we more deeply connect with the works that taught us something new, etcetera. But it’s also a little funny to me, since there’s no type of art more prone to sermonizing than family entertainment.

Inside Out

Most children’s stories are imbued with at least a few core moral principles, and family films have largely followed in that legacy. Pixar’s movies are no exception – starting with simple thoughts on belonging and identity in movies like Toy Story and A Bug’s Life, their moral complexity has evolved along with their visual execution. Sequences like Ratatouille’s defense of the critic, or major threads like Up’s frank portrayal of loss and self-forgiveness, have become some of the highlights of their greatest films. And with Inside Out, Pixar have arrived at a whole new level of narrative/thematic ambition.

Inside Out is the story of Riley, an eleven-year-old girl who is unexpectedly forced to move from Minnesota to San Francisco. Inside Out is also the story of Riley’s “emotions” – Joy, Sadness, Anger, Disgust, and Fear, the five figures who guide her reactions to the world around her. As Riley attempts to deal with her new life, her emotions struggle to help her along the journey, until Joy and Sadness are unexpectedly swept up into the machinery of Riley’s mental world. Following that catastrophe, Joy and Sadness must make their way back to their emotional headquarters, while Anger, Disgust, Fear, and Riley along with them all attempt to muddle on as best they can.

Inside Out

Given that premise, Inside Out actually has to tell three simultaneous stories: the story of Riley adjusting to her new life, the story of her emotions both dealing with that and going on their own adventures, and the meta-story of how their literal “emotional journey” reflects how we actually parse the world. On a pure narrative level, Inside Out is about a sad girl and the voices in her head that try to make her feel better. On a thematic level, Inside Out is about demonstrating through Joy, Sadness, and Riley’s other guides how we emotionally engage with the world around us.

There is an incredible inherent difficulty in Inside Out’s basic conceit – namely, that in order for the second story (the adventures of Joy/Sadness/etc) to “mean” anything in a thematic sense, their adventures must actively echo the ways we literally deal with our feelings at all times. Joy and Sadness can’t just be fully-fledged individuals – they have to be both sympathetic characters and representative segments of Riley’s psyche. Their adventures can’t just be exciting – they have to be inherently compelling and reflective of the ways we emotionally respond to displacement and grief. It’s a remarkably difficult road Inside Out chooses for itself – fortunately, the film just so happens to be absolutely fantastic.

Inside Out

The initial exodus of Joy and Sadness is one of the main, crucial turning points of the film, and reflective of how all the film’s internal caper beats echo Riley’s emotional shifts. The film frames their exit as an accident, but it makes perfect emotional sense – Riley’s life has up until her move been defined by happiness, and Joy has thus always considered herself the leader of Riley’s emotions. But when something cataclysmic happens that Riley literally can’t feel happy about, the fact that she’s been conditioned and expected to always be smiling means she can’t rely on Sadness, either. The expectations of Riley’s parents in the physical world mirror Joy’s attempts to cordon off Sadness in the emotional one; but without either Joy or Sadness to guide her, Riley doesn’t know what to do.

In the wake of losing Joy and Sadness, Riley acts in the way you might expect: as tentatively as possible. This makes sense emotionally, but it’s also frankly the only way this film could work. Inside Out couldn’t convey its internal adventure and also sneak in a complex external journey, because Riley is not working with a full emotional set of cards. Not only would it distract from the actual core of the narrative, it would break the seams of the film’s fanciful conceit – that our emotions can actually get lost, and need to find their way home.

Inside Out

But Inside Out knows its limitations, and so instead of straining against its conceit, it actually turns “missing key emotional components” into not just a strength, but another reflection of its core themes. The dinner table scene is a key example of this, featuring a small story that works on both the second (the emotional leads figuring out what to do) and third (how those actions reflect our emotional truths) levels. When we can’t process our grief, we lash out, pushing our mixed-up feelings in all sorts of directions. Without either Joy or Sadness, Riley can only express her feelings through bitter sarcasm, or rage. And that scene also features the surprisingly frank truth that as adults, we are not necessarily led by happiness. You can lead a fulfilling life without having Joy as your eternal guide.

Of course, you can’t get by without emotional guides altogether. Inside Out’s finale offers its most stark example of how emotions lead our lives, through its brief but visceral portrait of depression. Depression isn’t an overwhelming sadness; depression is the absence of emotion altogether, a grey sea where we feel nothing and see no shore. Having mixed up Riley’s feelings to the point where she can no longer imagine a happy ending, Fear articulates this directly, when he states that “we can’t make Riley feel anything.”

Inside Out

From its emotional heights to its depressive valleys, nearly the whole of Inside Out is constructed this way – every turn of the plot (barring a couple moments of internal dramatic convenience) contains some emotional/thematic truth. How our identity is constructed out of various sources of pride that give us stability and strength. How happy memories can be shifted into sad ones by our current changing perspective. How it feels to argue with yourself. How arguing with yourself can ultimately be fruitless, and how external stimuli can demonstrate that even when we feel trapped in our head, the world is still moving around us. How arguments can arise out of one person’s anger communicating with another person’s anger, leaving no room for other emotions at all.

But ultimately, Inside Out hinges on the relationship between Joy and Sadness on every single level. Joy is eternally sunny, but she cannot help Riley deal with the move – there is no immediate bright side there, and Riley has misgivings that need to be addressed. Joy learns first through Sadness’s ability to comfort Riley’s old imaginary friend, and then through her instrumental role in creating some of Riley’s most important memories, that Sadness is a key part of what makes Riley herself. Riley cannot emerge from the unhappiness of the move into a fuller, more capable person without embracing Sadness fully and completely.

Inside Out

It is only through embracing our grief, and letting us experience cathartic pain, that we can accept the shifting fortunes of life. We cannot move forward expecting all our experiences to be happy ones – life is complicated, and our feelings are complicated as well. Only through respecting what we are feeling as real and valid can we hope to grow from experience, and develop a field of memories worth looking back on.

Inside Out is somewhat unique in this theme, at least among family films. You rarely see a movie directly challenge the supremacy of positive thinking, and acknowledge that it is okay and in fact vital to sometimes be sad. Inside Out hypothesizes an entire internal landscape to humanize our feelings, and then uses that field to remind us that “just look on the bright side” won’t get us through the perils of this mixed-up world. The happy lessons are the easy ones, and they are important as well. But I deeply appreciate a film about giving Sadness its due.

Inside Out

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6 thoughts on “The Dramatic Layer Cake of Inside Out

  1. I for one love layered complexity in the stories I consume, so when an eloquent critic like you starts dissecting these layers and extracting something meaningful from the story…oh words cannot describe the satisfaction I get from reading this. Thank you.
    Btw some typos
    Paragraph 6, initially should be initial
    Paragraph 8, lead by happiness should be led by happiness

  2. Good article on an amazing movie – I can’t help but notice how you left entirely out the mention of Bing Bong and his role in one of the most powerful scenes of the movie though! I don’t know if that’s what you referred to when you mentioned “dramatic convenience”, but I think that part of the movie also fit nicely with the overall theme, that this process of dealing with one’s emotional equilibrium is a key part of growing up, and that losing something through it is inevitable and even necessary. When I saw that scene I nearly cried – not for Bing Bong per se, but for how clear the metaphor was, making me think of the many things of myself that I changed or lost one way or another since my childhood.

    • Oh, I thought Bing Bong was great, I just didn’t really have that much to add to his material. I agree with you that his segment felt both satisfying and compelling on a emotional-thematic level – the things I saw as narrative convenience were more like Joy using the tower of imaginary boyfriends to eventually jump back to the headquarters (though even there, her springing off the trampoline of Family, the one remaining source of identity, made sense).


    Jokes aside, the only anime that has done anything remotely similar to Inside Out was Black Rock Shooter. I think it would be interesting if some other anime were to try something similar.

    But at least there are some anime with multiple parallel narratives. Classroom Crisis, for example, is a story of a school drama, an engineering saga, and a political thriller intertwined into one.

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