Nothing Comes Back from the Dump

Parenting a young child obsessed with Pixar’s Inside Out

My daughter Moriah has been watching Inside Out, the 2015 film by Pixar Animation Studios. She has been watching it and watching it.

The first time was at a movie theater. I took her.

Her mother took her to see it again, some weeks later, at the second-run theater.

More recently, I paid fifteen dollars to Amazon.com so that we could stream Inside Out whenever we wanted.

Moriah watches it often, at least once every weekend, sometimes twice in one weekend. I don’t know how many times she has seen it, nor how many times I have watched it with her. It has been a lot of times.

Putting on a movie is a way for me and her mother to take a break from Moriah, from having to fulfill her needs, which are many. She needs to eat raisins, she needs to drink water. She needs to go to the bathroom. She needs to sleep, but doesn’t want to, and so has to be convinced to lie down and stay down. Her only need when watching Inside Out is to keep watching Inside Out, though she sometimes asks for popcorn.

Her only need when watching Inside Out is to keep watching Inside Out, though she sometimes asks for popcorn.

Moriah has not been obsessed with many movies. She has no patience for most of them. She is too afraid of Dave, the octopus in Penguins of Madagascar, to view it again, though I also paid Amazon fifteen dollars so that she could watch it when she wanted to.

There is no octopus in Inside Out. Instead there is a prepubescent girl, who moves from Minnesota to San Francisco and has an emotional breakdown. She is made to leave the vestiges of childhood behind and begin to become a teenager.

She has trouble, as people often do with that sort of thing. She gets into a fight with her parents while they eat Chinese food. She doesn’t seem to eat much of the food. Her parents disappoint her, as does all of San Francisco. She doesn’t like what they put on pizzas; she doesn’t like the house she is expected to live in.

She tries to run away from her parents and go back to Minnesota. She goes so far as to steal some of their money and climb aboard a bus that will take her home.

Sometimes I look away from the screen so that I won’t cry, but I still cry.

Then, at the last second, she has a change of heart. She returns to her parents. She confesses to them that she doesn’t like San Francisco. She misses Minnesota.

She cries, and every time she cries I cry, too.

Sometimes I look away from the screen so that I won’t cry, but I still cry. Sometimes I leave the room just at the moment Riley begins to cry, but even when I am in the next room I can hear it. I know what is happening in there. I am demolished by the crying scene, sometimes from several rooms away. I am not even someone who cries very often.

Moriah is someone who cries very often. She doesn’t cry when she watches Inside Out.

I don’t know what or how much she gets out of watching the movie. Her mother and I have spoken more than once about how relatively complex it is, how much of it might well elude her understanding.

Its exterior action is simple enough, with Riley moving from one region of the country to another, attending a new school for the first time, being humiliated in front of her classmates, doing poorly at a hockey tryout, and otherwise having a bad couple of days in the Bay Area. Those events, though, comprise just a fraction of the total running time. What makes Inside Out interesting, and what I probably don’t need to describe, since it’s a very popular movie that many people have seen, or at least know about, is that while all of this is going on in Riley’s life the film shows us what’s happening inside her mind. Five of her emotions — Joy, Sadness, Fear, Anger, and Disgust — are personified and voiced by comedians. Inside of her, they take turns controlling her actions. They argue with one another about what’s going on in Riley’s life and what they should do about it.

Five of her emotions — Joy, Sadness, Fear, Anger, and Disgust — are personified and voiced by comedians.

Two of the emotions — Joy and Sadness — have an adventure, one that corresponds with what’s happening to Riley in the parallel narrative of her move to San Francisco and its aftershocks. When Riley cries in front of her classmates, and is humiliated, Joy and Sadness are at that moment ejected from her Headquarters, leaving Anger, Fear and Disgust in charge, meaning that for most of the movie Riley cannot properly reckon with the situation at hand.

While Sadness and Joy are gone from Headquarters, they travel through Riley’s mind to the land of imagination, and to Riley’s islands of personality, which represent the most important elements of her self. There is an island for hockey, because Riley plays hockey, and an island for family, because Riley likes her parents. As we watch, the islands fall apart and drop into oblivion. Because her parents have removed her from Minnesota, Riley loses everything.

Moriah’s obsession with Inside Out — a movie about a girl who moves many miles away to a different part of the country — coincided with our own move to a different part of the country. At about the time she began demanding to see it again every weekend, we were preparing to leave Cranston, Rhode Island for Kansas City, Missouri.

Moriah’s obsession with Inside Out — a movie about a girl who moves many miles away to a different part of the country — coincided with our own move to a different part of the country.

It may have registered, for Moriah, that what she was watching Riley go through was about the same thing she was about to go through.

I don’t think it registered. I don’t think she really grasped what we, as a family, were about to do.

She would point out her bedroom window at night, sometimes, and tell me that the lights we saw out there were Kansas City.

Really it was more of Cranston, Rhode Island. It was the part of Cranston in which, last year, a former student of mine murdered his pregnant girlfriend and tried to burn her house down.

I didn’t tell that to Moriah.

There was a lot I didn’t tell Moriah: that she’d never see her friends from daycare again, after we left; that life would not be what it had been, better though it was likely to be. It is possible that what drew her to Inside Out again and again was what it told her about what was ahead, what changes were in store. I don’t know. I know she likes the part where Joy spins around and makes her dress twirl.

Between the start and end of Inside Out, Riley’s Sadness comes to understand her significance, as do the other feelings, while Riley grows up, maturing in a dramatic leap as she is displaced from where she spent her childhood.

Sadness, we see, wasn’t good for much in Minnesota. She caused Riley to overreact to small problems, like not getting what she wanted at the grocery store, losing her ice cream, and getting strapped into a car seat. A toddler’s sadness is small-time, the film shows us in a montage — and as I have seen firsthand, many times, not in a montage.

A toddler’s sadness is small-time, the film shows us in a montage — and as I have seen firsthand, many times, not in a montage.

I fucking wish. Moriah’s early sadness would have been laughable, more often than not, were it not so exasperating, did her tantrums not last so long.

The sadness of an adult or adolescent, the film shows us, is far more substantial than those fledgling sorrows. When you’re older you break down not when your dessert hits the pavement but when you lose the whole world you’ve always known, or when the career you spent the best years of your youth working for turns out not to be what you expected or wanted it to be.

You don’t throw a tantrum, when faced with adult sorrow and disappointment; you fight it until you can’t fight it anymore. You don’t lash out; you hide your face and weep, after staving off the tears for as long as you can.

A young girl, Moriah is still in the Minnesota stage of her sadness. It is one of the few things I can say about the contents of her mind with any certainty.

I know she thinks often of Inside Out, of Riley and the Joy and Sadness that live inside her. At playgrounds, Moriah declares herself Sadness, calls me Joy, and says we need to get back to Headquarters.

You don’t throw a tantrum, when faced with adult sorrow and disappointment; you fight it until you can’t fight it anymore.

I don’t know for sure that Moriah knows that the Headquarters in Inside Out is meant to be a representation of a part of Riley’s mind. Mostly, the film just switches from showing us what’s happening to Riley’s exterior to showing us what her feelings are doing inside her. It expects us to pick up on the correlation between these two dramatic theaters.

I know what the relationship is between them because I’ve watched a lot of movies, and I’ve seen things that similarly show what’s happening in someone’s mind and what’s going on with that person’s outsides.

These things include Fantastic Voyage, and the short film in Woody Allen’s Everything You Always Wanted to Know About Sex, in which Burt Reynolds and Tony Randall play operators of the brain of a man who is on a date with a woman. Woody Allen plays a sperm cell.

I don’t know that Moriah sees the correspondence between Inside Out’s parallel narratives of Riley and her feelings. She hasn’t even seen Annie Hall. She may only like watching both the Joy and Sadness narrative and the Riley narrative, and take it for granted that they are patterned together, not recognizing that they reflect one another.

I imagine that she does get it, especially after seeing it so many times. I don’t know, though. I have tried talking with Moriah about it, but when I ask her leading questions about Joy and Sadness she begins talking authoritatively about the film in a way that indicates to me that her understanding of it is warped, somehow.

At home and at school, at 3 ½ years, Moriah wants very much to be in charge of conversations about things she is not in a position to explain.

It is what Moriah does. She rarely admits that she doesn’t comprehend something. She covers up her failure to understand by declaiming about whatever it is she doesn’t fully get with great apparent authority. When I try to interrupt, she talks over me.

At home and at school, at 3 ½ years, Moriah wants very much to be in charge of conversations about things she is not in a position to explain. It is possible she learned this from me and her mother, as we have spent the last four years working as English professors. It is one way she has been blocking my attempts to see inside her head, to find out what’s going on in there.

I want to know what’s going on in Moriah’s mind, which I had a hand in bringing into this world. I want to know very badly.

Inside Out was made for children, ostensibly, but it does something parents want most, which is to let us see the contents of the brain of a child who is not unlike ours. As a father I am in a near-constant state of wanting to know what’s going on with Moriah, like when it is suddenly very important that I apply her toothpaste to exactly the center of the toothbrush bristles, but she doesn’t bother telling me that until I’ve already done it wrong, and she is livid.

Inside Out was made for children, ostensibly, but it does something parents want most, which is to let us see the contents of the brain of a child who is not unlike ours.

It seems to me that for parents like me, the appeal of Inside Out is that we are allowed to look behind the eyes of a child who has parents like us, who have problems with her like the ones we have with our children. “Do you ever look at someone and wonder,” says Joy in a voice-over at the start of the film, “‘what is going on inside their head?’”

Of course I do; I do it often, and I am willing to bet I wonder what’s going on in Moriah’s head much more often than she wonders what’s happening in mine.

Lots of kids’ movies have elements that only grownups appreciate, jokes that are intended to go over the heads of the children, but I think Inside Out is the one kids’ movie, out of all of them, that is really made for the people who drove the children to the theater, or bought the film for them on Amazon, and not the children themselves. There is more stuff in it than there usually is in a kids’ movie that’s bound to be lost on the children, like the stages of abstract thought that Joy and Sadness pass through, which include deconstruction.

Every time I’ve spoken with a grownup about Inside Out, that grownup says it made her cry.

Of course it did. It is supposed to make us cry.

I don’t know any children who’ve cried over Inside Out. Not small children, anyway. I haven’t asked any of the older ones.

That the movie was really made for adults doesn’t mean it strays from the story template that’s consistent throughout nearly all other Pixar movies, the formula followed by Toy Story, Monsters, Inc., Brave, The Good Dinosaur, probably Cars, which I don’t want to watch, because cars are boring, Up, and maybe A Bug’s Life, which is another one I don’t want to see. It looks dumb.

I don’t know any children who’ve cried over Inside Out. Not small children, anyway. I haven’t asked any of the older ones.

The Pixar formula goes like this: two characters who are by nature opposed to one another, but who enjoy a certain equilibrium under regular circumstances, are ejected from their regular circumstances. They spend the film returning to where they came from, reconciling their differences, and achieving a new equilibrium. It is usually the case that one of the two characters comes to understand the value of the other; he or she begins the film convinced that he/she is where it’s at, but learns the lesson that he/she isn’t really where it’s at, or isn’t the only one who is where it’s at.

Kids probably don’t know about the formula. If they do, I imagine they don’t care that it’s a formula. It certainly doesn’t bother me.

I don’t go to Pixar films for the elegant story structure. I go because there is a movie showing that won’t scare Moriah, and I don’t have many compelling ideas as to what to do with the young’uns.

I would love to be a dad who takes his kids into the woods to be with nature, who tells them about tree species and identifies fungi on their behalf. We don’t live near enough to the woods, though, for communion with the natural world.

In Rhode Island, sure, we lived near a city park, where I saw some natural things, like geese, and a hawk, one morning, who was gnawing on something dead. I also saw things I would call unnatural, like used condoms on the ground, and guys on benches trying out drugs. Those things are parts of the world, and I can’t change them. The men had as much of a right to the park as I did, but when Moriah saw them she asked questions I didn’t yet feel up to answering.

Moriah doesn’t even like to go on walks. When I try to bring her with me on walks, she demands that I put her on my shoulders. My posture is ruined.

I would love to be a natural dad, a paleo-father, but I can only be the father that my surroundings, and my children, permit me to be.

And I like going to movies. I like being in movie theaters. I like that watching a movie at the theater requires me to sit still and not look at anything but the giant screen for a while. I emerge feeling centered, probably because outside of movie theaters I am so distracted and befogged.

I would love to be a natural dad, a paleo-father, but I can only be the father that my surroundings, and my children, permit me to be.

I’ll go and see any movie, as long as it isn’t scary; I am too impressionable for scary. I’m happier if the film is good, and Pixar movies are usually good. Inside Out is good.

I have seen it so many times, now, that it doesn’t matter that it’s good. If it were bad, I would feel the same way about it as I do now.

I feel numb about it, mostly. The ending still makes me cry.

When Moriah and I play the game in which I am Joy and she is Sadness, which only she can initiate, she talks about the Dump. We can’t fall into the Dump, she says — meaning the memory dump in Riley’s mind, the great, black pit that underlies the landscape of Riley’s psyche. It is where all the pieces of Riley’s child mind go as she begins to grow up.

Throughout the film, we see relics from Riley’s childhood torn apart, bulldozed, and sent into the Dump, all of them gone for good. “Nothing comes back from the dump,” declares a mindworker with the voice of Paula Poundstone.

When Moriah and I play the game in which I am Joy and she is Sadness, which only she can initiate, she talks about the Dump.

When something enters the Dump in Riley’s mind, it sits in a massive pile of spherical memories as they turn grey, then black, and finally sublimate into mist and are gone.

I think often of how little of the time I’ve spent with Moriah will last very long, in her mind, how much of her life so far she won’t remember. She’ll be four, soon, but I think we haven’t yet crossed the threshold past which she is likely to have abundant, if hazy, recollections.

I think we’re still in what is bound to become, soon, the long dead zone of Moriah’s memories.

Everything here is going to the Dump. Nothing comes back from the Dump.

The house where we lived for three years in Rhode Island will be in the Dump. The time we’ve spent at playgrounds will have to go, though I am unlikely to forget it altogether. It helps that I’ve written it down.

The time we went to see Inside Out at the theater must be in the Dump, in both Moriah’s mind and mine; I know that we went to see it, and I recall how badly Moriah reacted to Lava, the short film that preceded Inside Out. Other details, though, have been lost to time and to repeated viewings of Inside Out.

Every time I’ve seen the movie, it’s been folded over itself. It’s all one mass of Pixar animation, now, bright and rich with color, a partially convincing imitation of real life.

It isn’t totally convincing.

The San Francisco that Riley moves to isn’t much like the one I saw in real life, when I spent two weeks there in the summer of 2004. I wasn’t really doing anything there. I was visiting a friend. It was the kind of thing I could do before the children took over.

In Riley’s San Francisco, as far as I can tell, there are no homeless people, and the only black person is the teacher at her school. The only Latino I have noticed in my repeated viewings is the Brazilian helicopter pilot, a man who is conjured up as a distant memory in the mind of Riley’s mother’s when the family eats dinner together. I don’t think he lives in San Francisco.

In Riley’s San Francisco, as far as I can tell, there are no homeless people, and the only black person is the teacher at her school.

Maybe there are non-white classmates at the school, but while their skin tones vary it isn’t clear what’s going on there, exactly. They don’t have lines, or do very much, in the scene in which Riley’s teacher asks her to talk about Minnesota.

Riley cries, then; only then does she begin to comprehend how much she’s lost and just how gone it is.

The young woman behind the counter at the pizzeria is white, as is the cool girl at school, as is the man who drives the bus that Riley boards when she makes her aborted escape attempt, at the end of the film.

I admit that it’s been years since I’ve been back, but when I went to San Francisco not everyone was white. In fact, in many parts of the city I went to, I was the only white person there. For two weeks I stayed in the Mission District, where the only other white people I saw were the ones I was staying with.

I don’t imagine this is news to anyone. San Francisco is known for its diversity, for not being full of people who look like me. It was something I liked about being there, as I have spent so much of my life among people who look a lot like me, or who are, at least, white.

In Inside Out’s San Francisco, nearly everyone is white — which is, to say the least, an interesting choice on the part of the filmmakers.

It isn’t as if Riley and her white parents have moved to a suburb, or an upscale neighborhood from which all non-white people would have, in a real-life San Francisco, been removed in the name of gentrification. Their Victorian home looks out on an alley. It may have once had a gay couple living in it.

In Inside Out’s San Francisco, nearly everyone is white — which is, to say the least, an interesting choice on the part of the filmmakers.

Speaking of which: early in the film, Riley’s Anger says he “saw a really hairy guy” as they made their way into the city. “He looked like a bear,” he says. It is the only suggestion that anyone in San Francisco is gay. When we see into Riley’s father’s mind, the personification of his Disgust is an unmistakable butch, but other than that Inside Out’s CGI city is the land of straight people.

When I went to San Francisco, everyone was gay.

Or, not everyone. I went to a Giants game, and found myself swarmed by straight people, or overtly straight people, the likes of which I had not seen in my time spent walking the city.

“Where the hell did all these straight, white people come from?” I remember asking the friend I was staying with. He didn’t know. But if you took all the people I saw at that Giants game and made them the only inhabitants of San Francisco, you would get the city portrayed in Inside Out.

I wonder if the demographics of Inside Out are in part reflective of the changes the real San Francisco has undergone since I was there, and since before I was there, with all the tech companies rolling in and driving everyone out.

Or else, it is the filmmakers’ imaginary San Francisco, the city they think it is, or want it to be, projected out of the offices of Pixar, which are awfully near San Francisco.

I don’t know what it means. It’s only something I couldn’t help noticing, the third time I watched Inside Out, and which I’ve noted again every time I’ve watched it since.

But it seems significant. And I have seen Inside Out enough times to also find it significant that Riley has blue eyes.

Her parents have brown eyes. I didn’t notice the disparity until probably the fourth time I’d watched Inside Out. It was at that time that I misremembered a presentation on YouTube by Helen Caldicott on the dangers of nuclear power.

It wasn’t the dangers of nuclear power I was wrong about; nuclear power is extremely dangerous. One of the reasons I am glad to have moved away from Rhode Island is that there are multiple nuclear power plants in the vicinity of Rhode Island which, if one of them melted down, would mean certain cancer for both of my children, their mother, and possibly me, too, if we don’t already have the makings of it in us from the fallout that traveled across the Pacific and spread across the United States when Fukushima went up.

I have seen Inside Out enough times to also find it significant that Riley has blue eyes.

The part of Caldicott’s talk that I messed up in my mind was that I thought she said if you have blue eyes and both your biological parents have brown eyes then those brown eyes came from “the milkman”; that because two people with brown eyes can’t produce a blue-eyed child the genes for those blue eyes must have come from elsewhere.

She doesn’t say that, though. It isn’t true. One night, recently, I watched her presentation all the way through again, renewing my horror at what humankind hath wrought in the form of impending nuclear death, which I am powerless to stop, in order to verify the thing she says about blue eyes. What Caldicott actually says is that if biological parents with blue eyes have a brown-eyed child then there must have been a milkman intervention.

This is good, I guess: I am the only one of my parents’ six children with blue eyes, and my parents don’t have them, either. Parents with brown eyes can have a child with blue eyes without it meaning anyone who delivers milk intervened in the sex life of one of them; it’s just unlikely that brown-eyed parents will produce a blue-eye. It doesn’t necessarily mean anything.

Except, I’m not the only one who has noticed this aspect of Inside Out. Late one night I watched another YouTube video that didn’t have Helen Caldicott in it. It starred a young man with glasses and a haircut, who spoke with the voice of an aspiring entertainment reporter about his theory.

His theory was that Riley was adopted by her parents; that neither of them is meant to be her biological parent. He cited as evidence of this her blue eyes and her parents’ brown eyes, and things less compelling, like the fact that in Riley’s birth scene, when Riley is born and Joy with her, they meet Riley’s parents, and both of them are equally calm. Neither one looks out of sorts, the way one does when one has just given birth, or has attended to someone in labor.

His theory was that Riley was adopted by her parents; that neither of them is meant to be her biological parent.

The YouTube guy speculated that this meant Riley’s parents adopted her, that they were there for her birth but weren’t directly involved.

But it could just as easily be an oversight on the part of the filmmakers, who make movies for children and not for YouTube guys who turn to cinema in search of evidence of adoption.

That he leapt to the conclusion that Riley was adopted, and not that she is the product of an adulterous affair, is boring, and isn’t reinforced by certain other elements of the film that might indicate instead that Riley’s mother hasn’t always been faithful to Riley’s father — or, in another scenario, that she didn’t couple with the man Riley now knows as her father until she was already pregnant by another man. Maybe she was in a porno movie.

In the dinner scene, Riley gets into a fight with her parents, culminating in her father shouting at her, “Go to your room.” It is then that Riley’s mother fantasizes, for a moment, about the man who’s referred to by her emotions as a “Brazilian helicopter pilot.” He appears, in a memory summoned by the mom’s feelings, and says to her, “Come! Fly with me, gatinha!”

“Gatinha” is Portuguese for “kitten,” or “pussy,” and it is possible that the helicopter pilot is Riley’s real dad. He has brown eyes, which doesn’t help this theory any. But it’s not outside the realm of possibility that, prior to his offer to fly Riley’s mother somewhere, which she presumably turned down, they had sex and she got pregnant.

Not that this is anything the filmmakers intended. I doubt they meant for Riley’s eye color to indicate anything about her mother’s sexual history. I suspect they merely knew that film audiences, like Pecola in The Bluest Eye, would identify most readily with a blue-eyed protagonist, and made Riley’s eyes blue for that reason, giving brown eyes to everyone else for some other reason, maybe to make her blue appeal stand out against a brown background. I don’t know.

Not that this is anything the filmmakers intended. I doubt they meant for Riley’s eye color to indicate anything about her mother’s sexual history.

But there are deliberate choices at work in this; it’s not as if they cast actors with certain eye colors and didn’t feel like getting them contact lenses. They made these characters from scratch, and were in control of everything. They could have made their eye colors consistent. They could have added some Latino extras to their exterior shots without even having to hire real Latino actors.

It must have come up, at Pixar headquarters, that certain viewers would see the characters’ eye colors and interpret them a certain way. Or maybe it didn’t come up, and they focused more of their attention on Joy, Sadness, and the rest of Riley’s mind, to the exclusion of other things.

When we see into Riley’s mother’s mind, Sadness is the feeling that predominates, the one that presides over her psyche in the scene in which we see into her head. Sadness sits at the center of her control panel. All other feelings defer to her.

When we see into Riley’s father’s mind, it’s his Anger that’s in charge — which is consistent with the fact that in the family he seems to be the authoritarian. Among his feelings, there is a clear pecking order; his Sadness, Disgust, Joy and Fear call his Anger “sir.” This dad isn’t angry most of the time, but he is the one in the family who gets angry most often.

The mother is never angry, which is not consistent with my experience of mothers. I haven’t found them to be particularly angry, but their tempers do rise from time to time.

The mother is never angry, which is not consistent with my experience of mothers.

It could be that the anger disparity between the two parents is meant to say something about the individual Inside Out characters only, and not about men and women generally. Maybe Riley’s mother is guided by sadness for reasons specific to her — like because she should indeed have chosen the Brazilian gyrocaptain, and she knows she cannot reverse her fateful decision not to fly away with him.

Maybe her husband is trapped in his anger because he suspects, rightly, that his wife longs often for the Brazilian helicopter pilot she could have — should have — absconded with. He knows he’s no helicopter pilot, and maybe Riley’s mother faced that crossroads after Riley was born. Maybe he told her, “Fly with me, gatinha,” when Riley was two or three, and he meant to save her from a dull life in Minnesota with an angry husband, to take both her and Riley with him someplace better, someplace sexier than Minnesota, like Brazil, or nearly any other place in the world, except maybe Germany.

Maybe Germany is sexier than I’m giving it credit for. Maybe Minnesota is, too.

And I admit that I don’t like what I have been doing here, looking for adult themes in a children’s movie. This essay is becoming something like those parodic or — worse — pornographic drawings of children’s cartoon characters having sex with one another. Or a version of the song “I Love to Laugh” from Mary Poppins, with the lyrics rewritten so that it’s about the faces people make during orgasms. I hate that I’ve had the idea for that.

The Inside Out mother isn’t sad for sexual reasons. I imagine she is driven by her Sadness, the father by his Anger, because that’s how they at Pixar know their audience is likely to see men and women. It isn’t a perception they invented; it is consistent with how men and women are often portrayed — with Achilles and Helen, Hades and Persephone, men in Woody Allen films and women in Woody Allen films.

I wouldn’t have minded an Inside Out in which these expectations are disappointed, where gender roles are complicated, where it’s not the father but the mother who has led the family to San Francisco so that she can start a new business. But mainstream cartoons aren’t generally where that sort of work is done.

When so much money is on the line, you don’t risk failure, or anything like it, by showing people that dads are full of sadness, or that anger can persist in a mother’s mind at a low boil.

It cost $175 million to make Inside Out. When so much money is on the line, you don’t risk failure, or anything like it, by showing people that dads are full of sadness, or that anger can persist in a mother’s mind at a low boil until a child’s recalcitrance sets it off, or that a woman can show initiative and start a new business. Essays are better places to do that sort of thing; it cost me nothing but time to write that last sentence, and I stand to make, from having written it, either a little bit of money or none at all.

I have no investors. There is no one checking in to make sure I’m on schedule and within my allotted budget.

I don’t have an allotted budget. No one even knows I’m writing this.

But in defense of looking for adult themes in Inside Out, it is the story of a girl who’s on the verge of becoming an adult. It would be appropriate, or at least clever, of the filmmakers to include things in it that the adults in the audience might see but which their real kids and the fictional Riley are oblivious to, or that they don’t see the significance of, or wouldn’t understand, but probably will understand soon enough.

Maybe Riley is adopted and doesn’t know it. Maybe the filmmakers wanted to get that across not to the children but to the more alert grownups. Or to grownups who aren’t especially alert but who see the film over and over again, weekend after weekend.

Helen Caldicott says we are on the brink of nuclear annihilation, that we have never been as close to it as we are now. We should have universal healthcare, she implores in a lecture you can watch on YouTube. Instead we have the Pentagon, which is working day and night to force Russia against the wall, when they’re already so close to the wall we’re lucky we haven’t been vaporized yet by way of their nuclear warheads, they by ours.

If the missiles come, they will collide with us at twenty times the speed of sound. We won’t even hear them. No one will be left alive.

But I have seen Inside Out so many times now that it matters to me, in spite of all that.

I didn’t realize, before I had children, that taking care of them entails living partway — more than partway — in their world. Or I knew it, but hadn’t lived it. I didn’t get it completely.

I didn’t realize, before I had children, that taking care of them entails living partway — more than partway — in their world.

The share of my mind that the children have claimed is growing all the time; the older they get (Moriah has a little sister) the longer they stay up at night, the more insistent their demands become. Tonight I may watch a television show that has violence and swearing in it, or watch footage on YouTube of Helen Caldicott telling an audience of presumably concerned people about the dangers of nuclear weapons and nuclear power. Tomorrow I will wake up and look after the children.

I am in their world. I can’t get out. I come up for air, but not as often as I’d like, not enough to prevent myself from writing about childish things, without them impressing themselves on me as essential things.

People who make movies for children must know what distress there can be for those who are in charge of the children, who look after them. It must be why they throw the parents bones, here and there, giving them things to understand at the expense of the children, jokes to laugh at that kids won’t get for many years.

Inside Out goes farther in this than other Pixar films do.

Near its end, when Riley is on the bus to Minnesota, where all her good memories were made, and where Anger has decided Riley should return, the bus begins making its way out of the city. It nears the interstate, and as it does Riley’s control panel begins to turn black.

Joy and Sadness still have not returned. The three feelings left in the control room have lost control. They don’t understand what is happening. Neither do we in the audience.

Joy and Sadness still have not returned. The three feelings left in the control room have lost control.

It could mean that Riley will die soon, if she doesn’t change her mind.

It could mean Riley is making a decision that has deep implications for her, that she’s doing something that will make her go evil. It could mean she is about to be abducted, that there’s someone on the bus who’d like to keep her in his basement for the next dozen years.

It seems that the worst thing that could happen is about to happen to her, something that would cause her far more prolonged suffering than the sudden detonation of a hydrogen bomb, which would, at least, be quick.

I know of only a handful of scenes from children’s movies that are as dark as this one.

One is when Optimus Prime dies in the original Transformers movie.

Another is the start of An American Tail, when the village that the Jewish mice live in is torched by Cossacks.

I know of only a handful of scenes from children’s movies that are as dark as this one.

Even that isn’t as memorable as the part in The Rats of NIMH in which Mrs. Frisbee’s children are in a house that’s sinking into mud and just this side of drowning. A cartoon rat in that movie gets knifed in the back, too, if I remember right.

Then there is the scene in Watership Down where a rabbit has a vision of a forest that runs with blood and seems to melt into the sky. I will never forget the sight of that.

In another version of Inside Out, one that’s a little more daring, and less a product of its time, the movie might start with Riley getting on a bus to escape from her parents and the new life they have chosen for her.

In a different Inside Out, it wouldn’t be the near-end of Riley for her to leave the city on her own. Another kind of Inside Out might start with its hero, a young girl, abandoning the world of her parents in the hope of finding something better.

I am inclined to take Riley’s side, when she gets on that bus.

I’ll admit that this is in part because I’ve done something similar. Like Riley’s parents, I made a decision to move far away in search of a better job and a bigger life. Like Riley, I have done what I could to take that decision back. With the family I co-created in Rhode Island, I have come running back to Missouri, where we have a chance at feeling like we’re at home, the way Riley felt when she was in Minnesota.

Another kind of Inside Out might start with its hero, a young girl, abandoning the world of her parents in the hope of finding something better.

I don’t think it’s wrong of Riley to want to leave and go home. Her parents have gone west to help whiten a whitening city. It seems like a regrettable project to be a part of. It’s not like she chose to go with them.

We don’t know the nature of her father’s new business. What are the chances that it’s a good business? He’s not starting an environmental advocacy group. He didn’t go there to work with Black Lives Matter.

He took his family there so that he could make money. They seemed to be doing all right in Minnesota, though; they had a house and a car. They had nice furniture.

It seems to me that Riley’s angry dad has given up everything that made him and his family happy in search of more money; that when Riley gets on that bus, she is turning her back on her father’s greed. She is choosing life over wealth.

But because this is a film that’s really been made to satisfy the desires of the parents who watch it, for Riley to slip out of their control and try to run away has to be a bad thing, the worst she could do.

I don’t want Moriah to run away from home. I’m not that kind of dad. But not all children’s movies portray Riley’s sort of rebellion as tragic.

Maybe the parents of today, like me, can’t handle even fictional children acting out like Riley does.

When I was young, the video game company Nintendo released a promotional film disguised as a kids’ movie called The Wizard, about a few kids who run away from home. It was a horrible movie, but the runaway kids were its heroes, and there are plenty of better movies that feature children who are wiser than their parents, and who do the right thing despite them or without their knowledge. E.T., Gremlins, The Goonies, Small Soldiers, Explorers, Flight of the Navigator, The Neverending Story, The Iron Giant, Home Alone — all of them privilege the good sense of the children over the oblivion of their parents.

Maybe the parents of today, like me, can’t handle even fictional children acting out like Riley does. It has to be a tragedy for her to have a risky adventure without her legal guardians there to keep her safe.

Maybe all of our fictional children have to suffer, now, when they step out of line.

Another popular film, also by Pixar, Finding Nemo, features an overprotective fish parent whose son tries to escape his grasp, and who goes on an adventure as a result of his defiance. But he only embarks on that adventure because he’s been captured by a human being. He is taken away against his will. His journey into the unknown is a punishment for his having stepped out of line.

These movies are wildly popular, and lucrative. Dads like me eat up what they have to offer like it’s movie theater popcorn.

Of course we do: they are movies about children who are punished for their disobedience. It’s exactly the thing that we want to see.

I want Moriah to stay here with me, and not get on a bus to Rhode Island. I want her to do all the things I ask and expect her to do. Surely, though, by now she has earned some wish fulfillment, something in the culture she absorbs that reflects what she wants over what I want. That’s not what Inside Out has to offer.

Maybe that’s what Dora the Explorer has to offer. Maybe that’s why she keeps asking to watch the same few episodes of it over and over.

I don’t think that’s the reason, though. I don’t have any idea what she sees in Dora the Explorer. Made to look like a point-and-click computer game from the early 1990s, it looks as if it were produced by joyless people, out of a sense of obligation. Inanimate objects sing the same songs in every episode. Dora’s map sings a song the lyrics of which are “I’m the map.”

He sings it over and over again. It is enough to make me miss Inside Out.

I don’t miss Inside Out anything like I miss the girl Moriah was at the time she was most obsessed with it.

She is still the same girl, but she isn’t; she changes so dramatically from one month to the next that when I look at old photos of her I feel as if I have known many Moriahs by now, like she has been replaced again and again by newer models of daughter.

I don’t miss Inside Out anything like I miss the girl Moriah was at the time she was most obsessed with it.

Nothing comes back from the Dump, says Riley’s mindworker, and I imagine that’s what makes me cry every time Moriah watches Inside Out, aside from the sad music that plays at the end, and the words Riley says, and everything else. I know that all the Moriahs my daughter has been are gone and are not coming back. I have the current model, and I am lucky for that, and thankful, but she’ll be gone soon, too, replaced with a taller Moriah, one who is calmer and who asks bigger questions. She will gain so much, but something will be lost, and all I will have of the girl I have woken up too early for, so many times, and sat through Inside Out with, so many times, are my memories, which fade and turn to mist just as rapidly as hers do.

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