Pixar’s “Inside Out”, or “Toy Story 4: The Human Puppet Factory”

In Pixar’s breakthrough feature film Toy Story (1995), which was a game-changer for CGI as a storytelling medium, beloved childhood toys came to life, propelled by intelligence, compassion, and playful comedic energy. In gaining so-called “life,” inanimate factory-made objects were endowed with the emotional complexity and autonomy that we typically ascribe to human sentience. Twenty years later, Pixar’s Inside Out (2015) inverts this relationship by making a film in which human beings are the inert, insentient factory objects that need to be animated by a set of springs and mechanisms. If in Toy Story a ragtag team of toys lived for the love and attention of an external character, Andy — someone who was aware of their existence, if neglectful and forgetful about their value — then in Inside Out the ragtag team of toys migrates into the mind and body of the character, serving as loyal caretakers to their clueless host. Riley, the film’s human protagonist, is represented as a vacuous industrial landscape, her Personality managed by a group of five emotional registers (Joy, Sadness, Anger, Disgust, and Fear) who operate their beloved human puppet like a retrofuturistic factory.

Pixar Inside Out
Welcome to the desert…of the Real. Anger, Fear, Joy, Sadness and Disgust look out upon Riley’s Islands of Personality in Pixar’s Inside Out.

The actual animation in the film underscores this strange relationship. While the Emotions and all the other characters inside Riley’s mind are animated with some fluidity and kinetic diversity, Riley herself is animated in the uncanny manner of Edgar, the human-skin-wearing villain in Men in Black. Shifting her weight awkwardly from side to side on legs that operate like stilts, and rearranging her facial expressions with creepy muscle isolation, Riley is an external shell responding to levers pulled by her internal toy masters. Whenever the Emotions are unable to properly pull her strings, she (as all sentient creatures in the world of Inside Out) literally shuts down and moves on autopilot.

Managing Riley’s subjectivity with the enthusiasm of a 1950s American factory (think late Taylorism and Behaviorism with a dash of Classical Hollywood), the five Emotions must activate the appropriate words and behaviours to optimize their host’s pleasure capital. They really love Riley, and by “love” I mean that they, like Pixar’s animators, want to keep their jobs and avoid being trashed in a bottomless pit of doom reserved for inefficient workers. Optimizing Riley’s happiness means properly storing and sorting all memories and impressions into a database of short audiovisual clips that can be played and replayed in desirable combinations. Things are proceeding smoothly, until Riley’s parents rip her away from the perfect and idyllic world of Minneapolis and take her to a dark and miserable place called San Francisco — a place where dilapidated houses host dead rats, and the streets are empty and grey. {Someone at Pixar was clearly upset at being priced out of the Bay area.} Sure, San Francisco has great cultural diversity, but they only serve broccoli pizza! Things get progressively worse from there.

San Fransisco in Pixar's
San Fransisco in Pixar’s “Inside Out” (2015). [Very low-resolution stills from a screener, included for illustrative purposes only.]

Since Riley and her family act like empty shells and therefore inspire zero emotional investment in them as characters, we spend most of the film trying to care about the anthropomorphized Emotions in Riley’s head. Borrowing from the classic Disney playbook, each Emotion is animated and colour-coded according to the tenants of mid-century psychology. There’s Joy, a lively pixie, whose radiant yellow skin emits a glowing aura to remind viewers of her white bright optimism. Then there’s annoying blue Sadness, rendered as a dumpy, slouchy, overweight nerdy girl. Oh, Sadness, sure you’re smart and available to commiserate when the chips are down, but why can’t you take better care of yourself, gurrl? Disgust is a fashionable and feminine lady, so obviously her main contributions to the plot involve manipulating other emotions and making friends with the cool kids. Anger is a male white-collar square, which of course means he has an aggression problem, and Fear is a tall, wiry lad, endowed with a bow-tie and some effeminate qualities that supposedly convey his weak constitution. All the other, adult characters in the film, such as Riley’s mother and father, are operated by single-sex management teams,which means that Riley is a beacon of a progressive young generation, or that her gender identification remains to be determined in puberty.

Pixar’s “Inside Out” (2015) Emotion characters.

Joy has always been the group leader throughout Riley’s childhood, but the family’s traumatic move to horrible San Francisco makes the Emotions realize that life is full of complicated situations that merit more sophisticated human-factory maintenance. Did you know that crying and visibly displaying distress can be beneficial, because it can marshal assistance from other human-factories? While navigating this tricky terrain of growing up, the Emotions must oversee a major factory overhaul, as Riley departs a childhood of clearcut emotions and enters the preteen demographic of emotional ambiguity. And just as the American factory had to learn the value of synergy and outsourcing, so, too, must the human-factory in Pixar’s Inside Out learn the value of mixed feelings and external pleasure reinforcements. 

Sitting through Inside Out felt like sitting through a very long after-school special, slash merchandising informercial, slash cheerful tour of the inside of a factory. The fact that Sadness — a character who spends much of the film repeating the same lines while lying on the ground and displaying very limited mobility — has become the audience favourite, speaks volumes about the lack of complexity (in character development or actual character animation) of the rest of the film. With Inside Out the otherwise inventive Pixar team took UPA’s brilliant satires of modern consumer life, episodes of The Magic Schoolbus, and 1980s self-help psychology manuals, digested them, and re-screened them as a glowing, ghostly memory of happy days past.


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