At this point, praising Pixar’s latest masterpiece, Inside Out, seems almost old-hat. Since its release, the film has received near universal acclaim from critics and audiences for its charming visuals, nifty concept, hilarious screenplay and emotional finale. I’m certainly not going to be the one to knock any of those elements of Inside Out, but I want to discuss another aspect of storytelling it executes flawlessly: premise.
In Lajos Egri’s classic playwriting manual The Art of Dramatic Writing (which works equally well as a guide to writing a short story, novel, or screenplay), the author extolls the importance of knowing and proving a specific premise in telling a story. “Every good play must have a well-formulated premise,” he says. “No idea, and no situation, was ever strong enough to carry you through to its logical conclusion without a clear-cut premise. If you have no such premise, you may modify, elaborate, vary your idea or situation, or even lead yourself into another situation, but you will not know where you are going.” Beyond the conviction apparent in Egri’s words, he deems premise important enough to dedicate his book’s opening chapter to the subject.
Before I explain how Inside Out exemplifies Egri’s principle, it’s important to understand the concept of “premise” as he uses it. I won’t bore you with a dictionary definition of the word (as Egri does), but suffice it to say that it’s essentially a synonym for “thesis”: an argumentative statement which a story will prove. By contrast, the Wikipedia entry for “Premise (filmmaking)” (not the most reliable source, but work with me here) cites two examples of film premises as “A lonely boy is befriended by an alien” and “A small town is terrorized by a shark.” While both of these supposed “premises” could function as abbreviated loglines for two of my favorite films, neither of them would make for a particularly interesting or argumentative thesis.
Although it’s easy to imagine the good folks at Pixar coming up with a “premise” in the Wikipedia sense for Inside Out (I’m envisioning something along the lines of “Anthropomorphized feelings team up with imaginary friend to save homesick girl”), their film also sports a premise to make Egri proud. There are a number of ways one could phrase it, but the premise of Inside Out essentially boils down to, “All of our emotions, even unpleasant ones, must work together in balance in for us to live happy lives.” In clarity of premise, importance of message and lack of didacticism, Inside Out is a marvel.
I’ll start with the clarity. From the minute we see Joy and Sadness forced to find their way back to Riley’s Headquarters, there’s never any doubt they’ll have to cooperate with one another to get where they want. Riley’s mind is a terrifying place, filled with Memory Dumps and fastidious miners, and Joy and Sadness have to stick together to survive the obstacles which stand in their way.
Their final return to Headquarters marks the ultimate proof of the film’s premise. Until Sadness comes back, Riley doesn’t have the emotional vocabulary to process her memories of Minnesota, resulting in hollow behavior fueled merely by Disgust, Fear and Anger. But once Sadness does return, Riley is able to understand her past with a melancholy befitting the situation, allowing for a bittersweet emotional reconciliation with her parents. (At this point, the Sadnesses inside of viewers go fuel throttle, and I mean that in the best possible way.) She needs all of her emotions working in tandem with one another to have the necessary equilibrium to keep her from running away from home, thereby proving Inside Out’s premise.
As difficult as the premise be can to accept, it’s a vital one for viewers young and old to understand. The film shows us the dangers of a mind controlled by volatile emotions such as Anger, but it’s equally easy to imagine the problems in a brain where Joy runs amok. Although she’s more appealing to us than Sadness, the latter emotion proves instrumental in saving the day. Whether or not the Sadness in your mind is personified by a set of blue lumps with a hilariously mopey voice courtesy of Phyllis Smith, it’s not always the easiest emotion to come to terms with, regardless of its importance. (Thus, the argumentativeness of the premise.) By helping viewers of all ages to see the roles of their less favored emotions, Pixar delivers a crucial message.
Best of all, the instructive nature of Inside Out doesn’t leave it feeling didactic in the slightest. The film is a blast throughout, with near-constant witty banter and hysterical sight gags held together by a thrilling adventure. These aspects all go towards proving the premise, but this obligation doesn’t keep them from fulfilling their own duties (i.e. being witty, hysterical or thrilling). Even if Inside Out functions as a guide for anyone trying to understand their feelings, it works equally well (or better) as pure cinematic entertainment.
This sort of achievement is hardly a new thing for Pixar. The proofs of premises in their other films are a subject for another article, but I’ll leave it at saying that they’ve been providing moviegoers with profound statements on fidelity, aging, environmentalism and other subjects since they began making features. As in Inside Out, these statements never come at the expense of creating a good time at the cinema for parents, children and anyone else who sees Pixar films. (Except for this guy.) Rather, what Pixar does best in their movies is what Egri says about all “good” plays: they prove a clearly defined premise.
Max Bledstein (@mbled210) is a Montreal-based writer, musician and world-renowned curmudgeon. He writes on all things culture for a variety of fine North American publications. His highly anticipated debut novel will write itself one of these days, he assumes.