Disney/Pixar's Inside Out tells the story of 11- year-old Riley Andersen, uprooted from her home in Minnesota and carted off to San Francisco, where her father just landed a new job. On the cusp of adolescence, Riley is completely unprepared for the mental and emotional turmoil the move is about to cause herself and her family; her parents, likewise, can't understand why their little girl, once so bright and open and the light of their lives, suddenly turns so irritable and distant. Ultimately, Riley is able to reconcile her feelings and make up with Mom and Dad (SPOILER), and they live in perfect harmony together forever after. All this, of course, is just the springboard for the really interesting stuff, in which we learn that Riley's emotions are sentient beings operating a giant control room inside her head. There's Joy, green-yellow and eternally optimistic; Anger, who's always on the verge of blowing his red brick top; Fear, a bug-eyed purple nebbish; Disgust, who can barely hide the look of disdain on her face; and Sadness, mopey and morose and blue. So far, Joy has been Riley's dominant personality trait, until circumstances force Sadness to challenge that position, and when both Joy and Sadness are ejected from headquarters and plunged deeper into the recesses of Riley's brain, it's up to Anger, Fear, and Disgust to keep up appearances - with often disastrous results.
Suffice it to say Inside Out is unlike anything Pixar has ever attempted before - eye-popping and funny and heartfelt, yes, but clearly conceived as a metaphor for the way our emotions sometimes get the better of us... and how our children learn to cope with those emotions during their formative years, much to the chagrin of their parents. It's an idea rife with dramatic possibilities, which director Pete Docter (Up) and co-screenwriters Meg LeFauve and Josh Cooley are consistently able to mine for comedy and visual gold. (I haven't even begun to describe Riley's "Personality Islands," or the color-coded translucent orbs in which her memories are "stored" and then carted off to Long Term Memory when she sleeps, or Bing Bong, or the stopovers in Imagination Land or - my personal favorite - Abstract Thought, where the characters are rendered as cubist shapes that would make Picasso proud.)
And yet, prior to its release, a portion of the moviegoing public seemed genuinely confused as to what the movie was actually about. That's partially the fault of the marketing, which accentuated all the slapstick-y bits and silly character voices but none of the nuance or emotional underpinnings that make up the meat of the movie. (Audiences would be wise to remember that the people at Pixar always have their best interests at heart. Unless it's a movie populated by talking cars, that is.) Then there's the matter of the movie being so difficult to categorize - neither science-fiction nor fantasy, though parts of it certainly lend themselves to that interpretation, with ideas firmly rooted in neuroscience. (Pay particular attention to the maze-like shelves of Riley's Long Term Memory, which closely resemble the wrinkles and folds of the brain.)
Another reason for the initial pushback against the film: audiences don't usually think in metaphors. We like our movies straight up and to the point, thank you very much, with nothing to distract us from the action or the jokes or the plot. So when something like Inside Out comes along, it's easy to scoff and say the story makes no sense, when in fact it's our brains struggling to rationalize it both emotionally and intellectually at once. (For the record, the film isn't saying our emotions are actually sentient beings living inside our heads, but is a visual representation of that, to make it more palatable for the kiddies.) Of course, it doesn't hurt that Inside Out's surface-level pleasures are so irresistible in their own right. And Disney/Pixar is hardly the first major studio to pass a "message" off as "entertainment." Below, some sterling examples of movies as metaphors - big themes and big ideas boxed up in consummately-wrapped packages. As the saying goes, these films are not "about" what they're actually "about." Here, however, we'll attempt to decipher what sort of high-minded concepts the filmmakers had in mind.
What It's "About": A prehistoric monster rises from the ocean depths to terrorize the people of Japan.
What It's Actually About: Nuclear Holocaust
Explain Yourself, Mister: The Japanese answer to King Kong and The Beast From 20,000 Fathoms, yes, is nothing more than a man in a rubber suit stomping on miniature trains and buildings (and even looks like a sock puppet in certain shots). But he's also the living, fire-breathing personification of nuclear fallout, still fresh in the minds of audiences just nine years after the bombings in Hiroshima and Nagasaki. (The screenplay was also partly inspired by the fate of the doomed fishing trawler Daigo Fukuryu Maru, about which you can read about here.) Countless sequels, remakes, and rip-offs have severely diluted the impact of the film, which, when watched today, is shockingly somber and laser-focused on all the death and destruction Godzilla leaves in its wake. And its final resolution - using H-bomb technology to destroy something created by H-bombs - suggests an endless cycle of violence we're only doomed to repeat. (Beware the 1956 Americanized version, with 40 minutes excised and footage of actor Raymond Burr awkwardly added in).
What It's "About": An idyllic seaside town finds itself under siege from marauding killer birds.
What It's Actually About: Anti-feminism
Explain Yourself, Mister: Hitchcock's most abstract film can be interpreted in so many different ways - an apocalyptic horror tale, a parable, a dire warning against man's irresponsibility to the planet - but since one of The Master's favorite obsessions was demeaning his leading ladies for the sake of his "art" (see also Psycho, Marnie, Vertigo), we'll stick with that one instead. The whole film, in fact, is about "birds" both in the ornithological and colloquial sense, in which an overzealous, sexually aggressive socialite (Tippi Hedren) inadvertently brings a whole host of avian-based terror to a helpless town. There, she becomes embroiled in tensions between a lawyer (Rod Taylor), his mother (Jessica Tandy), and ex-girlfriend (Suzanne Pleshette), and there's literally a two-shot, late in the movie, of Taylor being yanked through a window by squawking, pecking creatures as he tries to board up his family home, only to be pulled back through the other side by all the females in his life. Much is made, meanwhile, of the women's constant attempts to take over roles typically filled by men - the aggressor, the protector, the official checker-outer of strange noises in the attic. Is it any wonder that it's only at the end, after Hedren's character has been thoroughly violated, humiliated, and effectively silenced (put in her place, really) when the birds inexplicably halt their attacks?
What It's "About": In Victorian-era Australia, schoolgirls disappear during a rural picnic and are never heard from again.
What It's Actually About: Sexual Repression
Explain Yourself, Mister: Weir's gauzy, hypnotic masterpiece has alternately frustrated and fascinated audiences for decades now, though its auditory and visual clues are clearly meant to raise questions, not to answer them. Erotic early images of the girls going about their morning rituals (bathing, dressing, tightening each other's corsets) are juxtaposed soon after with phallic shots (lizards, jutting granite formations) of Hanging Rock itself - and all on a sweltering St. Valentine's Day afternoon, as if awakening them to sexual stirrings both intoxicating and dangerous. Three girls heed the call and vanish into thin air, leaving behind them a trail of questions and not much else. Were they murdered? Abducted by aliens? What of the teacher who also disappeared that day, seen later wandering the cliffs in nothing but her undergarments? And when one of the girls miraculously turns up days later, why does she retain no memory of where she's been or the others have gone? The movie never says, but hints at something far more sinister instead: that the deeper we bury our innermost wants and desires, the closer we come to losing ourselves to them.
What It's "About": A scientist's experiments in teleportation take a horrific turn when his genes are swapped with that of a common housefly.
What It's Actually About: Body Decay/Disease
Explain Yourself, Mister: Oh, man, is this movie gross. Don't get me wrong... I love it... but there are images here - a baboon with its guts turned inside out, a man's hand and foot dissolved via "vomit drop," a woman who gives birth to a maggot - that make repeat viewings kind of a slog. Cronenberg has never been one to shy away from body horror or psychosexual deviance before (or after), but here, working with Oscar-winning makeup and creature effects by the great Chris Walas (Gremlins, Enemy Mine), he reaches new heights of gore and grotesquerie that have yet to be matched on the screen. Beneath this story of a scientist (Jeff Goldblum) who gradually succumbs to the molecular devastation that's ravaging his body, however, is the heartbreak of a woman (Geena Davis) forced to stand idly by as the man she loves disintegrates before her very eyes. It's a perfect metaphor for AIDS, or for cancer, or for Alzheimer's, or for any degenerative disease, really, that slowly saps away our humanity while our loved ones watch, helpless, from the sidelines.
What It's "About": A snarky TV weatherman is cursed to relive the events of February 2nd over and over again.
What It's Actually About: Buddhism/Judaism/ Catholicism
Explain Yourself, Mister: And you thought it was just the story of a self-centered jerk who learns to be a better person. Well, it's still about that, but like our most enduring classics, Groundhog Day has evolved into something richer with deeper meaning, especially for anyone looking for it. Buddhist scholars, for example, see the film's endless loops as cycles of the samsara, or "Wheel of Life" - birth, life, death, and rebirth. (This would technically make Bill Murray the bodhisattva - one who achieves Enlightenment but comes back to help others experience it as well.) Jewish rabbis, meanwhile, view Murray's countless good deeds as mitzvahs - charitable acts which bring him closer to God, rather than achieving Nirvana or Enlightenment. Then there's the Catholic belief that Puxatawney, PA, is actually Purgatory, where Murray is forced to relive the day's events until he gets them "right" - as penance for some original sin. Ramis, for his part, seemed characteristically amused by all the hubbub but took the movie's secrets to his grave. Or perhaps he was too good a filmmaker (and comedian) to take away our enjoyment of the film as anything other than a self-centered jerk who learns to be a better person.
What It's "About": A disenchanted couple discover they are secretly spies for rival government agencies.
What It's Actually About: The Sanctity of Marriage
Explain Yourself, Mister: Screenwriter Simon Kinberg originally penned the film as his master's thesis at Columbia University, based on conversations with his friends about how their couple's counseling sessions had turned combative and mercenary. Wouldn't it be fun, he thought, to watch a couple on the downward slope of a relationship rekindle their love by beating each other to a bloody pulp? But the problem here isn't that John and Jane have sunk into a rut; it's that they simply aren't communicating about it in any meaningful way - their double lives literally prevent them from doing so. And it's only after they discover each other's "infidelities" that they reclaim some of the spark that helped them fall for each other in the first place. They bicker, they fight, and in the movie's centerpiece sequence, come to literal blows over all the resentment that's been building between them over the years, at which point they reveal themselves at their most open and vulnerable. Even the characters' fateful, final decision to stick together at the end has an unexpected emotional truth to it, as if telling us that, yes, separate they may be strong, but as a unified front, they're indestructible.