Let’s Talk About the One Bad Scene that Kept ‘Inside Out’ From Greatness

Inside Out is wonderful. Pixar’s summer release, which has burned up sales charts since its home media release last month and is popping up on year-end best-of lists left and right, is a charming, funny, heart-breaking story about growing up, coming to terms with disappointment, and (indirectly) being a parent. Like most of her contemporaries, our daughter is nuts about this movie; she watches at least part of it once a day, maybe more. And as I’ve spent more time with it over the past few weeks, I’ve had plenty of opportunities to contemplate why I love it so much, and yet didn’t put it on my own “Best of 2015” list.

It’s because of the scene. That scene. You know the one.

A summary, if you’re in a video-unfriendly reading situation: Our protagonist, 11-year-old Riley, has just moved from Minnesota to San Francisco. Due to a haywire afternoon in her brain’s “Headquarters,” the key emotions of Joy and Sadness are stranded in Long-Term Memory, leaving only Disgust, Fear, and Anger to run the ship. But in this scene, detailing a tense family dinner, we go outside Riley’s head and into those of her parents. Mom’s emotions alternate concern for her daughter with exasperation for her ill-equipped husband, prompting swoony nostalgia for the Brazillian helicopter pilot that got away. Dad isn’t paying attention; his emotions are preoccupied by a sports telecast, though they can kick into punishment mode with the precision of a military drill.

It’s a very funny scene – if your notions of gender and parenting are rooted in the tiresome tropes and stereotypes of a hee-haw laugh-track ‘90s sitcom. Something like, oh, Herman’s Head, the three-season Fox series no one had thought about for twenty-plus years, until wiseacres started referencing it in connection to Inside Out. And here’s the most telling part: Disney used a barely-abbreviated version of that scene as their first trailer, this time last year. This is how they wanted to sell the movie.

Still from "Inside Out"

Your correspondent wasn’t impressed by that trailer, and I stand by that assessment. It traffics in the most tiresomely retro notions of gender roles, up to and including a goddamn toilet seat joke, operating under the assumption that all grown men are obsessed with sports and all women are obsessed with men from the covers of Harlequin Romances.

It doesn’t play any better in the context of the movie – in fact, it plays worse, since it’s so jarringly out of tone with the picture’s otherwise admirably scrambled gender politics. (I’d love to hear what Amy Poehler, who isn’t a part of this scene, actually thinks of it.) Riley is, thankfully, not a traditional “girly girl”; she’s goofy and doesn’t care about boys and is something of a jock, more interested in playing hockey than playing with, oh, Disney princesses or something. And she’s also given the freedom to embrace some of that stuff later, particularly when her newfound interest in boy bands is mentioned near the film’s end.

Still from "Inside Out"

This fluidity is most clearly dramatized in the presence of both male and female voices in her head; Amy Poehler’s Joy, Phyllis Smith’s Sadness, and Mindy Kaling’s Disgust are joined by Bill Hader’s Fear and Lewis Black’s Anger. And therein lies another element of the dinner scene that doesn’t sit right: at some point between Riley’s age and her folks’ (puberty, perhaps?) the opposite-sex voices in one’s head are apparently switched, so the entire emotional range in mom’s head are sighing ladies, and dad’s are all barking men. Don’t worry, little Riley, out-of-the-box interests like hockey will go by the wayside eventually, so you can live a life of disapproval and disappointment.

And y’know what’s even more questionable about that scene? Take a look at who’s sitting in the center of each HQ, running the control panel. Riley’s chief operator is Joy, though over the course of the film, Sadness comes to join her. By the time she’s Mom’s age, Sadness apparently takes over entirely, while in Dad’s head, Anger calls all the shots. These are your fates, boys and girls. Enjoy!

Look, I know it’s just a kid’s movie and a comedy and lighten up and all that, but the point is, this is a kid’s movie, and these things influence the way those youngest of audiences see the world around them. But that’s not the main reason the dinner scene hurts Inside Out; it hurts it because it’s a lousy scene, lazily leaning on premises that a forgotten ‘80s airplane-and-hospital-food strip-mall stand-up would dismiss as hacky and worn-out. Can one bad scene sink a movie? Not entirely. But in Inside Out, they sure gave it a shot.