Posted by: holdenlee | July 18, 2015

Inside Out

I saw Inside Out recently and I loved it!

Some ramblings.

I’m fascinated with the whole “society of mind” idea – the idea that what constitutes our consciousness or our intelligence isn’t just one central entity (oneness is an illusion) – but rather a large collection of agents – feelings, methods of reasoning, etc. – cooperating/competing in our minds. To turn this into a story – portray all these agents in a person’s mind as characters – would be amazing but also very difficult – how could one get this across without being either being overly pedantic or abstract, or too simplistic? Inside Out really strikes a sweet spot here.

In general, I feel that there are a lot more kids’ movies nowadays that are really intellectually sophisticated (or maybe I just see more in them as a grown-up? I don’t know). In addition to giving kids a wonderful cast of characters and world to play with, they also plant a seed of a deep idea, or something that one could reflect on.

  • For Inside Out it’s the “society of mind” idea. (I hadn’t really thought about my mind become composed of different voices until college. But now even kids can imagine a cast of characters seething around in each person’s mind.)
  • For Big Hero 6, the idea of doing science for good (rather than just because it’s cool) is front and center in a way that I haven’t seen so much.
  • Frozen subverts the usual princess-prince love story (but I guess you need to already have a lot of those to make this work?), makes it more about sisterly love instead, and its “let it go” feels to me wonderfully gray – isn’t the move about how to “let it go” and be yourself without “letting go” of your loved ones?

Back to Inside Out. What made the movie work so well? Lots of things:

  • The characters are emotions. Of all the “mind agents” that they could have chosen, emotions are the most simple and concrete. (OK, I guess this is obvious.) Together (plus all the personality islands) they give Riley a very vibrant composite personality (ex. how at the beginning she/Joy is trying to find the upsides of moving).
  • Conflict: Keep it simple and concrete – something that kids can easily identify with on an emotional level. Here it’s moving to a new place (and having everything go wrong). Again, this seems “obvious” from hindsight, but from the wikipedia page, it took several iterations before the writers hit upon this idea – previously they had the much more abstract idea of “teenage angst.”) (And of course, it’d be cliche to move from a nice place like San Francisco to a middle-of-nowhere place like Minnesota, right? So of course they had to reverse it!)
  • Worldbuilding. It’s easy to be too scientific/abstract here. To make a good family movie you’d have to sacrifice some accuracy to turn the brain into a very concrete, adventurable landscape. Thus we have headquarters, personality islands (which add suspense as they collapse one by one…), long-term memory, the train of thought, imagination-land, dream productions, the subconscious, memory dump… (Again all quite concrete. One idea that got scratched was “idea fields”.)
  • Even sacrificing the accuracy it still has to capture some essential elements – some core bits that Make Sense and lend the story a logical backbone. Like…
    • Core memories – Memories that are essential to who we are, held on preciously.
    • How memories fade away – The workers vacuuming away memories, like names of presidents.
    • Sending memories off to long-term when Riley goes to sleep.
    • How we get songs stuck in our head for apparently no reason
    • Who’s really in control? Sometimes ideas seize us – after putting in the idea bulb we lose control!
    • The idea that memories aren’t simply “happy” or “sad,” and a memory can change from happy to sad.
  • On growing up:
    • I loved Joy as the main character. It’s really easy to identify with her naive view of what a good life is: just maximize happiness! When we are small that does seem to be what life is about.
    • Growing up is partly not about having Joy always being in charge, but understanding that all the emotions have their place. Joy comes to realize that Sadness is useful beyond just ensuring that all the sadness “stays in a circle”. (Incidentally, Joy being with Sadness is another essential piece that didn’t happen until late in the production – previously Joy was paired with Fear.) Sadness helps connect with other people (Bing-Bong); fear wakes Riley up better than happiness; at the end it was sadness that brought Riley back to her family and made her closer. At the end the memories are all multicolored (bittersweet) and everyone gets their place at the control panel.
  • And of course, lots of other things: the wonderful animation, getting the scary clown out of the subconscious, Bing-Bong’s song-powered wagon getting them out of Memory Dump and him jumping off to give Joy that extra boost…

One thing I’m curious to hear responses on: What other movie, books, etc. have built a world out of some thing or process that we don’t normally see as a world? Especially in this kind of style – here it’s turning the brain into a world. There’s a kind of mapping between the places and phenomenon in the fictional world and the parts/qualities of the object as they exist in the real world – which can be scientific (linked to the way things actually work) or fantastic. Could we come up with a list? I’m having trouble thinking of much, but then I don’t watch many movies. I can start off though, to give some ideas:

(I will also include a shameless plug for my own (chapter of a) story on cloud fairies.)


  1. Hey, just came accross with your website as I was googling “inside out” and “society of mind” since I just think the same: the movie reflects that idea (by Marvin Minsky). Then I went to the ‘about’ part and I realized that you study math and want to be a writer to. Same here, I study statistics/neuroscience, and love writing, want to be a writer at some moment, but there is stull a long road. Good luck! I leave my contact information, hopefully we can be in touch 🙂

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