THREE YEARS separate this from our last movie review, but rustiness and/or writing validity aside, Pixar’s latest demanded a return to the keyboard. Grab your “All of the Feels” haz mat suits and join us on this overwrought psycho-critical journey!
Wall-E is the best movie Pixar has ever made, and this is an unequivocal fact. Robots in love dancing through space on vapor trails, expressing this beautiful feeling neither of them really understand (they’re robots) but know their lives would now be empty without? FUCK, BRO, THAT’S THE STUFF.
…Of course for you, “best Pixar movie, unequivocally” might mean the brotherhood of toys embracing each other as they literally stare down death of Toy Story 3. Or the ocean-spanning search for a nervous father’s only son of Finding Nemo. Hell, it could even be Brave, if you’re being deliberately contrarian about it! Everyone has their favorite Pixar movie, and everyone has that movie in their head, consciously or not, when they sit down to watch the studio’s latest.
I bring this up not to promote click-baity false comparisons (“Inside Out may be brilliant, but it’s NO WALL-E!”) but to point out the IMMENSE task in front of any Pixar team developing a new film. It’s not enough for it to stand on its own; it has to stand taller, brighter than twenty years of features that came before. That pressure is only amplified by the typically five year development period each Pixar project undergoes. We don’t care if Joe Swanberg‘s new “movie” is any good, or better than the last, because the guy made 17 of them last year*. With Pixar…well, they better be hitting home runs.
*This is what I’ve missed about Lifting Fog, is the chance to trash obscure filmmakers in a completely inappropriate setting
Inside Out is a grand honkin’ slam. [SPOILERS]
I want to really kick things off, though, with a potentially dismissive thought: all of Pixar’s movies share pretty much the same plot. Here’s a mad lib for you:
A couple of [anthropomorphic nouns] don’t get along, but before the conflict really escalates they are both/all ejected from [normal world they inhabit] into a [scary new world]. They encounter [unrevealed in marketing breakout character] and begin to learn from one another. A [big revelation] cements their new, more mature relationship, and our heroes make their way back home — better, wiser than they were before. [Fun end credits sequence]
Sound familiar? It’s basically Joseph Campbell’s “Hero’s Journey” model, and the fact that it covers everything from Toy Story to A Bug’s Life to Finding Nemo to Monsters Inc. to Up is not to dismiss it — it’s to say that it works. But here’s the thing: it only works because Pixar understands its uses and limitations.
Any mouth-breather wearing a “Han Shot First” t-shirt can talk your ear off for 5-20 hours about the goddamn hero’s journey. Heroes! Villains! Ordinary worlds and special worlds and wise men and treasure! It’s an attractive model in the sci-fi/fantasy/adventure realm not only because it makes a sort of elegant sense, but because its perfect circle construction resembles an extra large pizza. Guys in “Han Shot First” t-shirts love extra large pizza.
But almost 40 years after Star Wars opened the Joseph Campbell floodgates, the hero’s journey as the point of a blockbuster movie…well, it’s tedious as hell. Doesn’t matter whether your story is about humans or wolves or humanoid wolves; whether it takes place on Earth or Mars or the 9th moon of Tak’narthrul. It’s a mad lib, we’ve seen it before, and even if we lend it enough of our dollars to make it the highest-grossing movie of the year, it’s with some sense of resignation.
I’m ranting now. Pixar understands that the whole hero’s journey model is just that, a model, and can be used in service of a way more interesting — and refreshingly free-form — story. What “plot” exists in Pixar movies…it’s just there to move characters around and facilitate relatively quiet moments of emotional growth. AKA the actual point of the movie.
Inside Out sees its two leads, literal Emotions Joy (Amy Poehler) and Sadness (Phyllis Smith, from The Office) accidentally ejected from the mind control center of an 11-year-old girl and, as described above, forced to navigate unfamiliar mental landscapes as they make their way back to Riley’s brain, and their forever job of keeping her emotionally stable.
That sounds complicated, very high-concept…but in a lot of ways that’s the big joke of the movie. Want to hear another, just as valid version of the plot? “A sensitive pre-teen learns to deal with her increasingly complicated emotions, and the challenges of growing up.”
The poster, the trailers — obviously they promote the vibrant and wacky shit taking place inside Riley’s head. You want to see Anger literally blow his top
or rainbows spew from a wagon driven by a cotton candy creature named Bing Bong. Both those things happen! Not to mention:
- A recurring “gum commercial stuck in your head” gag
- A tangible train of thought
- Joy accidentally mixing up crates of facts and opinions (“no one will know the difference”) and creating FOX News
- A line about “bears” in San Francisco that will go over most children’s heads
- The land of abstraction, where Joy, Sadness and Bing Bong are rendered as Picasso figures
Inside Out may actually be Pixar’s most purely inventive movie since Monsters Inc. (another Pete Docter project), full of wild visuals that are at once borderline avant-garde and totally story-driven. OF COURSE memories would be color-coded spheres, and OF COURSE the system by which they’re organized would be as fragile — and intricate — as a fucking dandelion. Everything makes such animated, impressive sense.
But I’ve also gotta say…I didn’t care too much whether Joy and Sadness were traipsing through Imagination Land (SOUTH PARK DID IT) or “Abstraction” or whatever new place they found themselves. Even when these setpieces were always beautifully conceived and animated — and not for nothing, funny — the Emotions’ journey mostly felt like timekeeping for the real focus, Riley.
What I’m saying is the “Out” is way more important than the “Inside” in the “Inside Out” equation. (YES, killer sentence.)
If I can get metaphysical for a second — and we’re already 1250 words in, I’m giving myself the green light — Joy, Sadness, all of the capital-E Emotions…they’re not independent characters so much as manifestations of Riley. Riley’s joy. Riley’s sadness. The movie is constructed such that the Emotions have agency and learn stuff and grow (just like real characters!), but everything “Inside” is just an abstract representation of what really matters “Out” (side).
I’ve read criticism of Inside Out that suggests Riley’s problems aren’t interesting, or “couldn’t sustain their own movie.” To answer the second concern first: no shit. It’s not like Pixar up and added an exquisitely articulated cartoon universe because they realized the Riley story needed puffing up.
And the guy criticizing the universality of Riley’s emotional struggles is probably best buds with our “Han Shot First” hero’s journey acolyte, because they are both missing the point.
I am not, nor have I ever been, an 11-year-old girl. And yet I’m human, and way too sensitive, and have felt acutely — well into adulthood — all of the feelings Riley spends the run time of Inside Out coming to terms with. I’m confident most people have felt those things. And so we look at the stuff Riley’s going through not as nostalgia, some reminder of the specific pains of growing up. We just look at it as the ongoing emotional challenge of being human.
Maybe tears are cheap. Maybe “I feel that way, too!” is an easy movie trick, distracting audiences from the craft they should be focused on. But then I think: cinematic craft is only valuable insomuch as it services (lowercase-e) emotion, the same way Inside Out‘s (uppercase-E) Emotions matter only to the extent we can see what’s happening with Riley.
The stakes here aren’t big: can a little girl figure out how to reconcile some complicated new feelings? But they’re also hugely important, not only to Riley but to anyone watching who’s ever wanted to not feel what they’re feeling. I don’t want to turn this already overlong “review” into an essay on mental health, but…well fuck it.
I’ve loved and love people whose brains can feel like weapons to them, minefields they struggle to navigate on a daily, hourly, and even minute-by-minute basis. For reasons they can’t understand — not on their own, anyway — things don’t “work” the way they’d like them to; they’re angrier than anyone would want to be, sadder than anyone would want to be. (No one’s ever complained about being too joyful, but then those people aren’t real — something Inside Out traces in Joy, who’s practically manic.) These are emotionally complicated people. Another word for them might be “normal people.”
Riley is a normal person, too, confronting for the first time some very normal emotional skid marks. Why do I feel this way? Why can’t I just be happy the way I used to be? Changes in Riley’s brain chemistry are triggered by starting at a new school, joining a new hockey team…but they could just as easily be triggered by a breakup, a failed business. And that’s before you mention the heavy hitters: depression, PTSD, schizophrenia… You know, those things.
Inside Out isn’t about an 11-year-old manic depressive going off her meds (which, you know, thank god). But the fact that it’s quite literally about mental health, and the ways we’ve got to confront the shit rattling around in our heads, well…head-on? Pretty ballsy for a children’s movie. And more than that, pretty necessary.
I don’t think there’s any underselling the importance of this movie’s message, to kids OR adults. It’s okay to be sad! It’s okay, as Joy learns, to not be deliriously happy all the time. Living an honest life means accepting — welcoming — the gamut of emotions you’re gonna feel, whatever their origin, from here all the way to the end. People describe emotional turmoil sometimes as a “rollercoaster.” Guess what — the whole THING’S a rollercoaster, and you never get off. But would you rather be wandering the park below, just tottering around the gift shop?
Delving into the complicated miasma of human existence — which we now know is full of glowing memory spheres, pneumatic tubes, and Star Trek-style control centers — makes us uncomfortable because it makes us vulnerable, and vulnerability makes you crazy (ladies) or a pussy (men). But the alternative, to get all Brene Brown for a second, is a shut-off life. Comfortable enough, maybe. But lacking in some fundamental…life-ness.
Inside Out made over $90 million last weekend in the United States. It will likely make a good amount of that haul again this weekend. Box office prognosticators are always asking “why?”
“Because audiences were clamoring for original content amidst a glut of sequels and reboots”?
“Because families were looking for an alternative to the empty, blood-drenched mayhem of Jurassic World“?
How about this:
“Because no matter how much we may dismiss our emotions, we also know they’re sort of what it’s all about.”
All hail Pixar, once more restoring my faith in the power of cinema not just as a storytelling medium (btw Inside Out was really good and you should go see it) but as a beacon for sensitive babies young, old, and everywhere in-between.