There will not be a mainstream movie released in 2015 with higher stakes than Inside Out. The dangers facing Jurassic World patrons seems puny in comparison. Ultron’s plan is a trifle when put next to what’s at stake in the latest Pixar film. Even the wholesale fuckery of the timeline in Terminator Genisys pales in comparison to what Inside Out puts on the line: the happiness of one little girl.
Recent years have seen a lot of talk about stakes in movies, and lack thereof, and I keep seeing people coming to one conclusion about stakes: they only matter if someone (preferably the lead) might die. A movie where we know the lead will live and even win? No stakes!, cries the internet, ignoring a hundred years of movies where the hero lives and wins.
When I interviewed Joss Whedon for Age of Ultron I asked him about the idea of stakes in longform franchise storytelling. He said:
The only stakes are emotional. The only stakes are moral. Can they get through this unscathed as heroes? Can they still be heroes? Can they call themselves that? Are they actually useful as a team? Or are they going to fall apart?
Obviously that last bit is specific to The Avengers, but everything else? That’s the definition of how stakes really work in movies. Psycho’s opening death worked so well because it blatantly flaunted the idea that the lead character would survive the film, but that kind of shock is only valid when used sparingly. We all know that John McClane is going to make it out of this latest mess, the question is how.
And more importantly, how will it impact him. That’s where Inside Out’s stakes come in, and where they help define how stakes work in traditional storytelling. In Pixar’s latest Riley is a young girl whose family moves across the country, upsetting her happy life and thrusting her into new and unfamiliar situations. She lives in a city where the pizza is weird, where she doesn’t know anyone and where her parents are not the calm, collected people she once knew. Inside her head her emotions struggle to keep her happy and even-keeled, but when two of them - Joy and Sadness - get swept out of Headquarters, Riley’s sunny and positive outlook turns into a grim depression.
As the two emotions try to make their way back to Headquarters they are shocked to discover that Riley’s Islands of Personality - the emotional epicenters of who she is, and the things that define her as a person - are unstable. More than unstable, some of them begin to completely fail, falling away into the Memory Hole, from which nothing returns. Joy and Sadness have to get back to Riley’s Headquarters before all of the Islands collapse, changing her into someone unrecognizable.
These stakes are enormous. The world isn’t going to end, no one is going to die and the future of the human race aren’t on the line here, but the film firmly establishes that what’s going on inside Riley’s head is important. The film established that Riley is a good kid, and that Riley deserves something as basic as a smile on her face. Watching the movie - often through a film of tears - I cared more about whether Riley would keep playing hockey than I cared about whether Chris Pratt would escape the dinosaurs at my previous night’s screening.
Stakes come when we care about characters, and the biggest stakes are how things will impact those characters. We all know that Sadness and Joy will eventually make it back to Headquarters, but will they get there in time to help Riley maintain the things that make her her? And how the heck will they manage to make the journey in time? As each Island of Personality crumbled and collapsed I felt more tension and concern than I did seeing a hundred CGI cities laid waste over the last few years.
These are what real storytelling stakes are about. We can assume that the hero will win in the end. It’s how the hero gets to that victory - and what it might cost her along the way - that creates the purest excitement, dread and hope. It’s never a question of “Will they,” it’s always a question of “How will they.”