If the plausibility of Pixar’s depiction of the inner workings of the human mind isn’t sufficiently self-evident from a viewing of Inside Out, their stupendous new achievement, consider that Björk too had a analogous vision through verse. “Once it was simple, one feeling at a time. It reached its peak then transformed,” she sings on this year’s Vulnicura. As she contemplates the devastating end of a relationship, she longs to return to the simplicity of the time before. But as her family unraveled, something changed: “These abstract complex feelings, I just don’t know how to handle them.” Inside Out locates a somewhat less severe but all too similar psychological rupture in the late childhood of its protagonist, brilliantly visualizing her own shift from emotional clarity to complexity.
Director: Pete Docter
Producer: Jonas Rivera
Writers: Pete Docter, Ronaldo Del Carmen, Meg LeFauve, Josh Cooley, Amy Poehler, Bill Hader
Editor: Kevin Nolting
Cast: Amy Poehler, Phyllis Smith, Richard Kind, Bill Hader, Lewis Black, Mindy Kaling, Kaitlyn Dias, Diane Lane, Kyle MacLachlan, Paula Poundstone, Bobby Moynihan, Paula Pell, Dave Goelz, Frank Oz, Flea
Genre: Animation, Comedy, Drama
US Theatrical Release: June 19, 2015
US Distributor: Walt Disney Studios
The way the film handles this journey nearly defies explanation. A description of its rules and parameters will sound too silly or too confused, or both. Here’s a project that easily could have been scrapped because the material seems almost impossible to streamline for narrative efficiency. But writer/director Pete Docter and his team, after some reportedly significant setbacks, found a way. A guiding concept that, even in the final product, seems at first both cluttered and overly simplistic explodes outward with appropriate synaptic chaos.
In brief, when Riley, our hero, blinks into existence and gazes up at her parents in beautifully animated soft focus, her five Emotions (Joy, Sadness, Fear, Anger, and Disgust), rendered as color-coded sprites, assemble at the control panel in her mind, ready to respond to external forces according to each’s individual code and to collect Riley’s correspondingly color-coded memories in the form of glowing orbs, which power the islands of her personality before being sent out to the distant horizons of her brain space. The script lays all of this out in what must be the talkiest, most hermetic opening sequence ever attempted in a mainstream animated feature.
This process of emotional response and memory collection continues with apparently little friction, one emotion per memory, until mom and dad drag now 11-year old Riley away from her happy life in Minnesota out to gray, gray San Francisco, where the houses are narrow, dirty and chipped and where Riley knows no one. In recent cinema and TV, like HBO’s Looking and Chris Mason Johnson’s Test, San Francisco is being reimagined as a foggy final frontier, and here it proves an ideal setting for a girl lost in the fog of adolescence. (Minneapolis moviegoers might be pleased to learn that Inside Out is, on a superficial level, a 90-minute visualization of Minnesota homesickness.) In San Francisco, things start to go awry in Riley’s head, little hiccups in the works that threaten the Emotions, and key player Joy in particular, who’ve never had to question the smooth operation they oversee. By accident, Joy and Sadness get flushed out to the vast corridors of Riley’s long-term memory, leaving Fear, Anger, and Disgust, the three pillars of the adolescent mind, in control. As the mise en scène “opens up” to the expansive territory of the brain, so ends an 11-year-long Act I, Scene I for these five actors.
As Joy and Sadness begin their journey back to the control station, the establishing rules of the film’s opening 20 minutes begin to pay off. The duo’s adventures are fun and briskly narrated on their own terms and have significant, predictable consequences in the outside world. Throughout, there’s a graceful correspondence between inside and out that’s all the more remarkable given all the outlandish things taking place in Riley’s brain. By the time Joy rescues the forgotten invisible friend Bing Bong from a balloon prison atop the belly of Riley’s biggest childhood fear deep in the dark of her subconscious, the real-world consequences of such seemingly hallucinatory plotting are obvious.
Meanwhile, the film keeps rolling through a series of gags and lines--about memory loss, commercial jingles, abstract thought, déjà vu, the subconscious (“where they send the troublemakers”), dreams (elaborate studio productions starring “bad actors” and filmed using a “reality distortion filter”), facts vs. opinions, the root of sarcasm, imaginary boyfriends, puberty, and more--that further deepen its universe and verify its firm grounding in psychology. (The capper: end credits that glimpse into the mind of a cat.) It’s perhaps a bit too much for one viewing. Audiences that get caught up admiring the film’s bright, crisp animation on the big screen will later want to savor its ideas with a pause button. The turn-and-talk possibilities for parents and children are staggering, particularly where sadness (and Sadness) is involved. All those hiccups in the works I mentioned earlier? Perfectly healthy and normal processes, the film makes clear.
For any such conversation a family might have after seeing Inside Out, Riley must serve, for better or worse, as a default position for gauging the responses of the human brain to the larger world. It’s great to see Pixar taking a cue from Studio Ghibli and others and crafting a project with a female lead (for only the second time, after Brave), but the film’s few nods toward universality make the choice of protagonist deserving of a little further scrutiny. It’s hard to imagine Inside Out, the product of a major American studio, being made about anyone other than a child of certain privilege, experiencing manageable degrees of change and emotional stress.
Since the film is predicated on the idea, right from its opening line, that it’ll get viewers thinking about the way their own minds work, I’m curious to know how broad the appeal will be. Will viewers who don’t identify with Riley find her concerns alienating or insignificant, or is the film’s conception malleable enough to be freely adapted for anyone’s use? For example: Could Björk’s Vulnicura be retold on Inside Out’s terms? (When she sings, “I refuse it’s sign of maturity to be stuck in complexity, I demand clarity either way,” cue a scene of the sprites in her head attempting to un-swirl her murky gray memories.) I don’t know, though I think it’s to the film’s benefit that it produces so many unanswered and unanswerable questions. In the labyrinths and pathways of Riley’s brain, things happen that even the acting agents who ostensibly control her don’t understand. Is it meaningful, for example, that Riley, unique among the film’s characters, has Emotions that aren’t exclusively gendered male or female?
For my part, I unthinkingly adopted the film’s core premise as I sorted through my own responses to it. Riley’s memories begin to arrive in a swirl of different emotions and different colors at the end of the film, and I imagined mine more swirled yet, as I watched. Inside Out’s big heart-leap moments (the fall of Goofball Island; Riley’s adopted, unloved city taking its place on Family Island; etc.) rival Pixar’s best (the opening of Up; the ending of Toy Story 3), and the film provides a new visual vocabulary for contemplating the tangled, complicated feelings these moments inspire.