The Polite Therapy of the “Inside Out” Movies

What does a happy child look like? Is she an endless font of bubbly laughter and wonder? Or is she sober about her responsibilities, measured in her responses to life’s obstacles, and prepared for whatever may come? Is she aware of the sadness and the suffering of others and committed to helping the less fortunate?The

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What does a happy child look like? Is she an endless font of bubbly laughter and wonder? Or is she sober about her responsibilities, measured in her responses to life’s obstacles, and prepared for whatever may come? Is she aware of the sadness and the suffering of others and committed to helping the less fortunate?

The wise answer, or at least the most widely accepted one, is yes to all of these. In “Inside Out,” the Pixar film from 2src15, we are introduced to Riley, an eleven-year-old girl who has just moved with her family to San Francisco, from Minnesota, where she had an apparently idyllic life playing hockey with her friends. The movie depicts Riley’s consciousness as a kind of starship headquarters inside her brain, staffed by five anthropomorphized emotions: Joy, Disgust, Anger, Fear, and Sadness. These emotions dictate Riley’s responses to the world using a giant control board: when something unfair happens, Anger steps up to push a button; if Riley encounters something gross, then Disgust pulls a lever. The emotions are also tasked with organizing Riley’s memories, storing them in different parts of her brain. There is a carrousel of “core memories” managed with an iron fist by Joy, a doe-eyed, spritelike, deeply annoying emotion who spends most of the first movie bossing around her colleagues. Joy does not want Sadness to touch any of Riley’s core memories, and her attempt to stop her from doing so creates emotional havoc, which is only resolved when Joy finally relents. The lesson, one gathers, is that memories should be touched by a whole range of emotions; our mental well-being requires us to accept these feelings rather than single-mindedly chasing joy.

Inside Out 2,” which was released last week, begins with Riley at the age of thirteen and in the first stages of puberty. This development has prompted the arrival of four new emotions—Anxiety, Envy, Ennui, and Embarrassment—who show up unannounced at headquarters and quickly elbow Joy, Fear, Disgust, Anger, and Sadness out of the way. Joy, we learn, did not absorb the lessons of the first film, and has continued with her meddling ways. Whenever Riley has experienced something shameful or bad—getting charged with a tripping penalty in a hockey game, for instance—Joy has been firing the memory of it into the back of Riley’s head via a pinball-launcher-like contraption, essentially burying these parts of her past. In so doing, Joy has monopolized Riley’s Beliefs, which, in the film’s visual logic, are luminescent strings that rise up like bean sprouts from selected memories, then entwine themselves together into a pattern that represents her Sense of Self.

The plotlines of the two movies are more or less the same: something happens that causes Joy to be expelled from headquarters, and she must journey back to restore order to Riley’s life. One can hardly blame a children’s film for adhering to one of the tried-and-true archetypes of storytelling, although there’s so much repetition of scenery and visual gimmicks that “Inside Out 2” almost feels like a downloadable-content add-on for the first “Inside Out,” rather than a story of its own. Still, the huge box-office success of the movie—it had the biggest opening weekend at American theatres since “Barbie”—suggests that there will be more content add-ons to come. One can imagine the “Inside Out” series becoming a fictional, animated, and much less artistically ambitious analogue to the “Seven Up!” film and its sequels, which set out to follow their subjects for their entire lives, providing updates every seven years. Perhaps in “Inside Out 8” we will become acquainted with the forty-four-year-old Riley and meet the four newest emotions who run her life: Dysthymia, Indifference, Displaced Anger, and Rationalized Disappointment.

If that does happen, I imagine it will become increasingly unclear who these movies are for. I went to a crowded matinée screening of “Inside Out 2” with a pair of seven-year-olds. When we left the theatre, my daughter—who, like her father, is exceedingly literal about some things—asked her friend, “What is anxiety?” I imagine she was not the only person who was confused. (I was puzzled, too. The first “Inside Out” concerned Riley’s worry about moving to a new place; why did that manifest as fear and sadness but not anxiety? If there’s a meaningful distinction between those previous emotions and this new one, the film did not try to explain it.) While I was working on this piece, a colleague mentioned that he had recently taken his seven-year-old and five-year-old to McDonald’s, where they had purchased “Inside Out 2” Happy Meals. The toy they each got was Ennui.

Pixar can still deliver expansive, beautifully rendered landscapes and well-timed jokes; the studio keeps finding creative ways to turn abstractions into things with arms and legs and very round eyes. And the tearjerking moments that Pixar perfected in “Coco” continue to land. All of the adults around us at the “Inside Out 2” screening were loudly sniffling and dabbing at their eyes at the end of the film. But Pixar films can also feel overly focus-grouped, and their more recent features—which also include “Elemental,” “Lightyear,” and “Turning Red”—seem to have been cast by a woke human-resources department. Riley is white and blond; her best friends, in the movie, are Asian and Black, respectively; an older girl who becomes her idol is Latina. There’s a not-so-fine line between representational care and perfunctory pandering. And, though “Turning Red” paid evident attention to its rendering of contemporary Toronto, the Bay Area of “Inside Out 2” is mostly a vague, fantastical place. (I can tell you that there is not a single high school in the region where a teen-age girl’s social capital relies, as it does in the movie, on whether or not she makes a hockey team. And if there were a rabid youth ice-hockey scene in Northern California, I’m sure it would be primarily made up of rich kids from Marin County.)

Such hyper-representational politics feel dated at this point, a relic from perhaps even before the summer of 2src2src. Still, I don’t think it’s particularly interesting to whine about how Pixar decides to racially represent what ultimately end up being stock characters. The quicker we accept that Hollywood studios are generally going to stick with an idealized and sanitized vision of racial politics, the less repetitive agita we will all feel.

What disappointed me about “Inside Out 2” is more abstract, and not entirely a matter of what’s on the screen. In the past three years, Pixar has put out three films about young people undergoing changes to their body: this one, “Turning Red,” and “Luca.” The workshopped moralism of the studio’s early days—from the quasi-socialist labor theories of “A Bug’s Life” to the whimsical neighborly kindness of “Up”—has been replaced, at least in part, with explorations of budding angst. In the “Toy Story” series, we saw Andy, the putative master of the toys, grow older, but from the perspective of toys who did not age. Now the perspective has flipped: we are learning what was going through Andy’s body during those years when he outgrew Woody and Buzz Lightyear. There’s a reflective feel to these new films, as if you are scrolling through a company Slack channel in which people very earnestly and a bit clumsily debate what Pixar’s mission should be. What do you do when you get bored of the beautifully rendered sentimentality of the earlier films? Does Pixar have to grow up?

In “Turning Red,” menstruation was represented by the protagonist transforming into a giant red panda. That movie is lively and, at times, refreshingly unhinged. But the “Inside Out” movies are set up as allegories about the way kids do and should feel—the premise more or less demands a model for living. Of the four new emotions in “Inside Out 2,” the star is Anxiety, who quickly takes over Riley’s life, forcing her to abandon her best friends to hang out with the cool, older kids at the hockey camp; urging her to commit some light breaking and entering; and ultimately changing her Sense of Self, from “I’m a good person” (the mantra enforced under Joy’s careful watch) to the more distressing “I’m not good enough.” At the end of the film, Anxiety literally spins out of control.

Presumably, kids are meant to absorb some universally recognized maxim along the lines of “It’s important to keep your anxiety in check.” There is no tangling with the current reality of emotional regulation; mercifully, perhaps, we do not meet a new character named Lexapro at any point in the film. What we get is a fantasy of therapy talk—agitprop for the types of people who talk about their Big Five results at children’s birthday parties. Watching the “Inside Out” movies can feel like talking to the child of a psychologist who has been trained her entire life to name and discuss her feelings.

In the gospel according to “Inside Out,” the purpose of life is entirely secular. We are meant to savor all of our emotions and meld the memories they color into a plausible but positive Sense of Self. Any notion of a higher or deeper purpose is not really discussed, or even hinted at—which is somewhat surprising, given that the director of the first “Inside Out,” Pete Docter, has spoken publicly about his Christian faith. But Docter has also said that his duty as a popular filmmaker pushes him away from proselytizing. “I don’t want to feel as though I’m ever lecturing or putting an agenda forth,” he told Christianity Today in 2srcsrc9.

There is also little consideration given to how our emotions and our outlooks on life are shaped by material conditions. The world of “Inside Out” might be racially diverse, but, like the “Toy Story” universe, it is also uniformly middle class in a way that almost seems designed to ward off commentary. Not that I expect Pixar to produce anything suggestive of Karl Marx—or even of Jesus—but if you’re going to make a film about memories, feelings, and what amounts to the soul, the spirit that brings it to life should be immediate and relevant. Instead, the movie offers a careful picture of the polite, educated, secular consensus about emotional health, and the supposedly deeper question it asks almost feels like it’s been generated by ChatGPT. This doctrinaire and yet thoroughly generic conception of consciousness is, in itself, a bit depressing. Should children feel a perfectly balanced salad of emotions? Do the names we assign to them—sadness, anxiety, ennui, embarrassment—actually fit our reality? Or does this eagerness to categorize and contain our experiences offer a vision of life that is tame, restrictive, and finally unimaginative?

As a parent, I am not so sure. As an adult, I am more certain that this vision of easily named emotions that can be delicately balanced is overwrought and even decadent, and certainly less interesting than the spiritual and theological questions that Docter has often avoided. (He got a little closer to them in his fantastic and far more philosophically interesting 2src2src movie, “Soul.”) This, I suppose, is not Pixar’s fault. The studio’s reflecting the polite consensus of the times, which is arguably its job, and it has made an engaging and crowd-pleasing film. But, as I was leaving the theatre, I was happy that my seven-year-old did not know what the word anxiety means. She certainly has felt the emotion, but I am deeply skeptical that learning to name it at such a young age, or feeling any pressure to discuss it at length, will be helpful in any way. We do not have to always live in the headquarters in our head. ♦

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