“Emotions can’t quit, genius” – Mindy Kaling as Disgust, Inside Out
Ah, the film of the century.
Or at least, so the numbers led me to believe. Pixar’s latest film, Inside Out, opened to a record-breaking weekend of $91.1 million in revenues, the highest grossing for a Pixar original and the biggest debut ever for a non-sequel movie.
Judging a film by its numbers is (shocker) not always the best way to gauge the quality of the film. It turns out, however, that even being the highest-grossing film of all time means diddly-squat, now that nearly every new blockbuster ends up the most successful film of all time (for a few weeks, until the next one comes along).
I recently attended a lecture on the economics of the Hollywood blockbuster, which presented Mark Harris’ theory on about the exploding blockbuster trend in Hollywood. In a nutshell, Harris posits that Hollywood’s obsession with the formulaic blockbuster and its ensuing, unending parade of sequels is precipitating the gradual, choking death of the art form.
My primary objection to that fatalistic theory was Pixar – a studio that produces hit after hit with nary a mediocre film, let alone an artistic flop.
Inside Out follows the inner emotional life of a young girl, Riley, who moves with her family from Minnesota to San Francisco, leaving behind her beloved school, friends, and hobbies. Nearly all the action is internal to Riley’s mind, as her struggle with the emotional upheaval is realized by her anthropomorphized emotions: Joy (Amy Poehler), Disgust (Mindy Kaling), Sadness (Phyllis Smith), Anger (Lewis Black), and Fear (Bill Hader).
The film just couldn’t quite live up to all that hype. Although Riley’s emotions are funny and interesting, they are (by definition) one-dimensional characters, each representing a single aspect of Riley. With so much screen-time devoted to the distilled emotions, the multi-faceted human girl isn’t actually seen all that much. A bit more time to relate to the girl in possession of the emotions would have tipped the scales for me.
That said, the blank-slate of Riley’s personality does serve a purpose: every child can imagine him or herself as Riley. Given Hollywood’s (and even Pixar’s) tendency to default to “male child” as the standard for the childhood experience, I appreciate that Riley is a girl. I also appreciate that the studio felt no need to categorize Riley as either stereotypically girly or rebelliously tomboyish, instead presenting this hockey-loving, rambunctious young girl as a perfectly normal example of childhood.
It may not make my top ten list, but the film is intelligently done, emphasizing the different and positive ways that all emotions (including disgust and sadness) play into our lives and emotional health. It was a reminder I needed this week: all emotions (even sadness) are there to keep you healthy and safe. The trick is not to dismiss them.