Part 3: Has Anyone Else Noticed That Riley's Parents Kind Of Suck?
Turning Inside Out Upside Down

New here? Check out the table of contents or start at Part 1. Wondering why this review is so critical? Well, everyone else has already written plenty about why Inside Out is awesome, so I'm going to be focusing on aspects that need some more attention.

So far this series has discussed problems that have implications in how Inside Out relates to our larger society, but that don't detract from the movie's own internal worldbuilding. Today we'll look at some storytelling laziness and associated plotholes, most of which boil down to one simple fact that the movie doesn't seem to understand about its characters:

Riley's father and (to a lesser extent) mother are pretty shitty parents.

C'mon, we're Disney parents and we're alive--what more do you want?!

This might seem a little harsh at first, but quite frankly I have high standards, benefitting as I have from excellent parenting.

And just look how well I turned out!

Now, I'm not saying these parents have to be perfect, and it's great to show realistic, flawed people who make mistakes in a stressful situation. "Make mistakes" I can accept; "inexplicably behave like total idiots whenever the plot finds it convenient" I cannot.

I should clarify at the outset that I have no problem with bad parents being portrayed in stories about bad parents. King Triton is a terrible father, and The Little Mermaid's plot is informed by his struggles and his learning from his mistakes. Yay character development. And of course we have our two Wicked Stepmothers and Mother Gothel. On the flipside, James and Mufasa are great fathers, and their bonds with Tiana and Simba lend their stories great emotional weight. The problem with Inside Out is that it presents a family that is supposed to be very close-knit and supportive, but whenever the parents are shown DOING anything onscreen, they don't act like they know how to parent well enough to have achieved such a happy family in the first place. While you can certainly do a decent movie about parents learning to parent, it's kinda been done (see The Little Mermaid, from a couple of sentences ago), and I feel like "coming to terms with your emotions is an essential part of growing up that you must ultimately figure out for yourself" is a much more interesting message than "incompetent parenting makes your children significantly more likely to run away."

I wrote in the prologue about the apparent lack of communication from Riley's parents about the house they're moving into, and even the shock Riley's emotions show at the arrival of the moving truck makes no sense. Riley is eleven. How is she so surprised that she'll be moving? (And Riley's emotions are always shown being a step or two ahead of Riley, so if they don't know something, she doesn't know it.) Even Andy's plastic toys had a better sense of what was going on in his life! While I didn't move house in my formative years, my parents did buy some vacation property when I was just about Riley's age--I distinctly remember that I knew the name of the realtor, I knew which properties we were looking into, and I knew the pros and cons of each one, because my parents actually TALKED TO ME about this major family decision on a regular basis. I'll also point out that among my friends and my sister's friends the same general pattern definitely held. The families I knew growing up that behaved like Riley's parents do when they actually have dialogue written for them (i.e., incompetent and cliched), did not go around acting so warm and close like Riley's family did in all the scene-setting moments.

At this point I'd like to bring up a concept we'll call the Plothole-to-Payoff ratio. For instance, it's absurd in Casablanca that the letters of transit are not invalidated after the murder of the couriers since everybody knows that's where they came from. Big plothole, actually. But the payoff of this is CASA-freakin'-BLANCA, so it's totally fine. Here, on the other hand, we have multiple points where Riley doesn't know something obvious, and the only payoff is Riley looks surprised or disappointed. That's it--nothing groundbreaking, and frankly there are many other ways to show Riley's increasing stress that would be as evocative if not more so, and wouldn't strain credulity as much as her being surprised by things any decent parent would have told her. I don't need Riley's parents to be perfect, I just need them to be plausible enough that I'm not distracted from Riley's emotional development.

Me, at way too many points during this movie.

Riley's mom annoys me mostly as a matter of sins of omission--obviously if Riley doesn't know something, her mom must have also failed to tell her. That and she's a bit of a doormat, as discussed in parts 1 and 2 of this series. Such a missed opportunity! Even the thank-you-for-being-happy speech--which bugged me to no end about how explicitly Mom says the family's goals revolve around the father--could have been wholly better with just a teensy little bit of tweaking. If Mom were the prime driver of the business venture, you could take the same speech and just do a find-and-replace for "Dad" -> "Us," maybe with a bit about valuing Riley as part of their team, all of a sudden you go from a Stepford Wife to a captain rallying her crew. You'd still see how Riley is over-encouraged to be happy, but then it would actually have a valid point about working together and building morale. As the movie goes on, we might come to learn this attitude is simplistic, but it would be more powerful if we, the audience, were fully taken in by it at the time (as opposed to cringing at Wifey Dear!).

Riley's father, on the other hand, takes a much more active role in screwing things up. The emotions clearly state that Riley's dad told her the house would be great, and her room would be awesome. How much more could he have set her up to be crushed and distrustful if he TRIED?! Why didn't he prepare her for the amount of work this house would be? Now, this works perfectly in Saving Mr. Banks, where the fact that Travers Goff is confabulating wildly to cover up for his shortcomings is rather *the point*...

Childlike optimism or Wernicke-Korsakoff Syndrome? You decide...

I'll take Wernicke's for $500, Alex.

But I feel pretty confident this is NOT what they were going for in Daddy Andersen, so they should have written him better. They could have shown Riley having unrealistic expectations in a slightly less blatantly-misled sort of way: maybe the emotions could bring up a memory where she had overheard Dad telling Mom the house is going to be worth millions someday, and Riley could understandably get the wrong idea from that. This would get you a perfectly plausible setup for Riley being disappointed, no parent is directly at fault, and you get a nice little jab in about San Francisco real estate prices to boot.

Up next, bad parenting and bad writing combine in the cringeworthy dinner scene...

1 comment:

  1. Yes, we all know that trying to be supportive of your husband = Stepford Wife. I bet you wouldn't say that if it was the husband supporting the wife in that way.
    I bet you must be very popular with the menfolk.


About the Author

Satiricalifragilistic grew up during the Disney Renaissance, and The Little Mermaid was the first movie she ever saw in theaters at age 3. Her mother flatly refused to let her leave the theater when Ursula got huge and terrifying, and maybe that explains her troubled psyche.

While she'll admit to being an inveterate nitpicker, she firmly believes in loving a piece of art even while criticizing it, and in the importance of engaging critically with what she loves. She has special contempt for anyone who tries to claim the politics in Disney films don't matter because "they're just movies," because she knows exactly how much the Disney Canon influenced her little gradeschool self—for good and for ill!

She loves art, design, music, dancing, movies from Hollywood's Golden Age, and British comedy...expect a lot of these to turn up in her reviews and mashups!