Inside Out is a creative, even revolutionary film that shows the emergence of the Female Myth in worldwide storytelling. Female Myth was wiped out in Western culture about 3000 years ago, and it was a devastating loss to our collective heart and mind. But in just the last few years we’ve begun to see it reemerge in a form that speaks to how we live now. And audiences love it.
This is not some passing trend. Female Myth stories are part of what I call New Myth forms (to learn the beats of these forms, see the New Myth Class), and I believe they will dominate worldwide storytelling for the next two decades and beyond. That’s because they fundamentally change our collective vision of who the hero is and what she will accomplish on her life and story paths.
To see how Inside Out works, we have to break down its structure, beginning with the genres it uses, since genres are simply specialized story forms. In the Anatomy of Story Master Class, I talk about the single most important strategy for popular and critical success, which is to combine one or more genres with Drama. The genres, like Myth, give the audience archetypal characters and situations meaningful to everyone, regardless of culture. Drama gives audiences the most subtle and complex characters in all of story, and that applies to the opponents as well as to the hero.
This strategy of mixing genres, especially Myth, with Drama is, in my opinion, the biggest reason for the success of the Pixar scripts and films. We see this technique used from Pixar’s beginning in the brilliant Toy Story films. We see it in Monsters, Inc., Finding Nemo and Up and we see it here in Inside Out.
But in another important strategy for worldwide storytelling, the writers mix in other genres as well. Besides Myth and Drama, Inside Out has strong elements of Fantasy and Buddy Picture Comedy.
That kind of mix makes for a very complex structure, which is difficult to pull off. As in any Fantasy, we have two tracks here: the fantasy track and the reality track it represents. But unlike Fantasy which takes a single main character from mundane world to fantasy world and back to the mundane, this story has two main characters, Joy and Riley, one for each world. Joy is the primary main character, and it is her Myth journey through Riley’s mind that gives us the main spine of the story.
Of course both Joy and Riley are female. But that alone does not make this a female myth. Joy is not a warrior like the Diana goddess, as depicted by the Katniss Everdeen character in The Hunger Games. She is an emotion, and a way of seeing and interacting with the world without fighting. Riley isn’t the typical Disney princess. She’s a normal, eleven-year-old girl facing a traumatic life event where she’s been forced to move to a new home.
Like the Male Warrior Myth laid out by Joseph Campbell, Joy goes on a long, difficult journey. But she doesn’t fight her way through one opponent after another, ending with a big bloody battle. She thinks and feels her way through the labyrinth that is Riley’s mind. Nor is there a Minotaur at the center that Joy must slay. There are references to some of the old Greek myths, such as the Cyclops in the form of a giant, scary clown and a mountain which Joy, as Sisyphus, must climb only to tumble back down and try again. But it’s the way she handles the opposition, and ultimately succeeds, that makes this a new Female Myth story.
Her primary ally in this journey, and the key to its final success, is another woman, Sadness. As in any Buddy Picture Comedy, the buddy is the first opponent. In the mind of Joy and the audience, Sadness is her polar opposite and best avoided whenever possible. But the key to the self-revelation, for Joy and thus Riley as well, is that experiencing loss and Sadness is part of growing up.
Inside Out points up one of the great challenges, and costs, of telling a new Female Myth. The Male Warrior Myth, indeed all of Western storytelling in the last 3000 years, is based on maximum conflict. Female Myths solve problems in a different way. So the question becomes: how do you create plot that is not based on density of conflict?
Many have noted the plot of Inside Out lags. That comes with any Myth story based on the journey. The Journey plot, with its succession of opponents, can become repetitive. But a big part of the plot problem of Inside Out comes from the lack of conflict, especially a building conflict with a powerful outside opponent over the course of the entire story.
Inside Out overcomes this with a number of brilliant story elements. One is the detailing and organization of the story world in Riley’s mind. Story world is now one of the three or four most important elements in popular storytelling. And the ability of these writers and artists to bring the complex human mind to life, and even more to show how it changes incrementally and dramatically as a child grows up, is breathtaking.
I also have to call attention to all the meta elements about movie-making sprinkled throughout the film. From sly movie references to the Dream Factory Hollywood studio churning out Riley’s dreams, the meta elements are not only funny, they make Inside Out a constant pleasure for the adult viewer.
With Inside Out, Pixar has shown that its success comes from having the best scripts in the movie business (which is why their placement of the writing credit on this movie listed below apparently every producer at Pixar was baffling and very annoying to me). For writers, the great lesson of this film is that Female Myth is an express train that’s coming on fast. If you have an idea for a Female Myth, write it now.