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Film Review: Inside Out

Inside Out (2015; Directed by Pete Docter)

Inside Out is a representative Pixar Animation Studios effort. It takes an infinitely realistic and entirely relatable crisis in the life of a child – in this case, a move to a new city, struggles to adjust to new circumstances, a deep sense of sadness for the loss of the familiar old ones – and overwrites it with a frenetic, adventurous, imaginative, colourful fantasy world where developments impact upon or at least mirror those in the “real” world. When broken down to its constitutive elements in that way, that summary could serve just as well in describing children’s fiction and its procedents in general. Youth-aimed fantasies from Peter Pan to Alice in Wonderland to The Wizard of Oz and beyond render childhood struggles in fanciful terms that nonetheless reflect their sometimes difficult experiences of growing up.

Pixar’s works are undeniably indebted to that tradition, but substitute a certain world-building meticulousness and detail-oriented internal consistency for the conscious fantasy equivalences of J.M. Barrie and L. Frank Baum. The great children’s fantasies have always been believable, but Pixar’s tremendously rich computer-animated visualizations demand an increased element of the concrete, the rationally or at least cognitively coherent, to be accepted by an ever-more discerning young (and not as young) audience. They are also much more knowing and self-aware, as a consequence.

The worlds of Toy Story, Finding Nemo, Monsters Inc., CarsWALL-E, and Inside Out have sets of rules that govern them, and resemble our own reality in myriad familiarizing ways. Very often, it’s the breaking of those rules, the transgression of the familiar, that drives the plot of Pixar films: lost toys, a missing offpsring, a displaced house, even the reappearance of a vanished civilization. This journey away from what these films’ characters know best and what makes them feel comfortable and meaningful is, like all great children’s fiction, a grand metaphor for the pain and uncertainty of growing up. Smaller metaphors for the same thing may be embedded in the texts but the larger one resonates the most.

This is fundamentally what happens in Inside Out. Directed by Pete Docter, who helmed Up and Monsters Inc. for the studio, Inside Out proposes that inside each person is a gland-like control room manned by five contending (and, ideally, collaborative) emotions: Joy, Sadness, Anger, Fear, and Disgust. This quintet’s stark divisions are especially pronounced inside the head of 11-year-old Riley (Kaitlyn Dias), although the ever-positive Joy (Amy Poehler) dominates the highly industrialized operations of Riley’s feelings and memories and relationships. Keeping Riley happy above all is Joy’s driving mission. She heads off eruptions by Anger (Lewis Black) and Fear (Bill Hader), directs the distate of Disgust (Mindy Kaling) to productive ends, and treats the dour Sadness (Phyllis Smith) and her eternal downerhood like a leper to be quarantined.

Joy is the managing director of Riley’s internal infrastructure, maintaining the amusement-park-like “islands” of her personality and caching away happy memory after happy memory, visualized as coloured spheres, deep in her Library of Babel-like memory banks. Riley’s emotional life runs smoothly and happily until, one day, the familiar is (un)expectedly stripped away. Her dad (Kyle MacLachlan) starts a new job in San Francisco, uprooting the family from rural Minnesota to the urban environs of the Bay Area, away from Riley’s friends, her hockey team, and increasingly away from the happy life she knew. Sadness begins turning happy golden memory spheres to a melancholy blue, and Joy’s attempt to stop the process ejects them from Headquarters and lands them both among the memory stacks, far from the nerve centre at this most critical time in Riley’s emotional growth.

The other emotions struggle to cope with the crisis created by the move without Joy being around to run things. As Joy and Sadness enlist the help of Riley’s mostly-discarded imaginary friend Bing Bong (Richard Kind) in their trek back to HQ, personality islands begins to collapse, heralding a worsening emotional orientation in Riley’s life. Joy will find that some long-treasured elements of Riley’s emotional life cannot be saved, and that the influence of Sadness may be important to preserve still others.

The overarching message of Inside Out is that transitioning from childhood to adulthood is a agonizing process of acquiring emotional complexity and, inevitably, of happiness bleeding away and a measure of sadness replacing it. The loss of innocence, cartoonified. At least this is the process for Pixar’s idealized bourgeois child of relative sheltered privilege, which Riley represents; what types of emotions might toil away in the control room of an emotionally-damaged child of dysfunctional upbringing, Inside Out does not have the dark-hued boldness to imagine.

Its imagination does have vision and breadth, and even some fleeting adult-oriented sophistication. One visual and comedic highlight of the film comes when the journeying party attempts to take a shortcut through a chamber dedicated to Abstract Concepts and the characters undergo a modern art representational degeneration through Cubism to Abstract Expression to two-dimensionality. Later sojourns in the surreality of Imagination Land, the dark vault of the Subconscious (featuring a clown depicted like a city-destroying monster), and the Hollywood insider satire of the Dream Production Studio rattle off interesting concepts, even if they are too often abandoned for sequences of manufactured peril.

There’s an undercurrent of Red State culture politics buried deep in the cortex of Inside Out as well. Riley’s heartland home in Minnesota (also Docter’s home state, not uncoincidentally, I’m sure) is an idyllic Eden for the young girl, constructed as a locus of happiness for her. This is set against the drained urban bleakness of San Francisco, where they serve broccoli on pizza, don’t play hockey on frozen ponds, and live in disappointing townhouses (Riley is pretty down on their new home, but it’s pretty damned nice for San Fran). This contrast is amplified through Riley’s own biases and emotional state, but there is an element of reactionary conservatism at insideout1work, too, that simplified, fantastical American cultural dichotomy of family-oriented, close-knit heartland communities and detached, developmentally fraught coastal urban enclaves of degeneration and filth.

But Inside Out is ultimately a film about emotions, and about emotions having emotions. It’s psychologically accurate in some ways, or at least strives to be, and Riley’s reactions to and decisions about her turbulent move to California make sense in terms of her own emotional backstory, identity, and memories as well as her relationship with her parents (although her most fateful moves are all a bit too drastic and dramatic, coming across like plot mandates above all). Docter has the film make what reads as an honest and genuine effort to reach out and touch its audience, but there’s a core manipulative nature to it that is worth resisting, if only to allow us to consider its inherent prerogatives.

In a curious and likely unintended way, Inside Out textualizes Pixar’s calculated regimentation of emotion, their well-honed, highly professionalized manipulation of their audience’s feelings through the studio’s films. The still-dimly-understood sectors of the brain governing emotion, personality, and memory are rendered as an all-monitoring corporate office type of operation, as the result of centralized control. Procedures, machinery, and a highly sophisticated and interlinked storage structure govern the every mood swing of an 11-year-old girl. And yet there remain processes and cause-and-effect relationships that are only dimly grasped by the professional emotions as well, that require leaps of faith and sentimental extrapolations to achieve desirable (but not always happy) results.

With this in mind, Inside Out can be seen as a sort of fantasy narrative of the modern American condition as filtered through the ideology and psychology of the pursuit of happiness and the complex, often contradictory and even counter-productive implications of corporatized creative industry in that neverending quest. To get more specific, it’s an imaginative expression of Pixar’s own idealized mission, its melding of visual technique, deep and resonant ideological themes, earned emotional responses, and cathartic humour to craft entertainments of near-universal appeal, for the purposes of both artistic messaging and bottom-line profit.

With its image and practice as a free-thinking, progressive “creative class” operation, it’s easy to lose sight of Pixar’s identity as a corporate organ (an ease which their brand managers gladly encourage). Pixar is connected in its inception to Silicon Valley’s co-opting of open-minded liberality to justify corporate consolidation and control. The studio is reliant on entertainment monolith Disney for funding and distribution, but also shares a bedrock commitment with the House of Mouse to simultaneously flatter and challenge the assumed conditions of childhood innocence through its releases. Aimed at the most impressionable and vulnerable moviegoers, Pixar features unapologetically advance very particular and influential ideas and utilize the highest technical and psychological expertise to manipulate their audience’s emotions to convince them of the premises presented.

The emotional resonance of Pixar films is a frequent talking point for fans and critics alike, but with certain exceptions (Toy Story 3‘s arresting incinerator scene, the exquisitely tragic broad-strokes life story that begins Up) it’s often staged and employed cynically and cloyingly, complete with close ups of eyes tearing up and tinkling minor piano keys on the soundtrack. Move beyond technique and affect, though, and there remains the disconcerting question of what larger purpose Pixar’s emotional manipulation serves, and how that manipulation reconfigures our absorption of emotional stimuli. In Inside Out, that emotional infrastructure is conceptualized and visualized as industrialized and corporatized. Our feelings are run through machines and offices, and are governed by encyclopedic user manuals; our memories stored in impossibly vast archives in which they lose their importance and vitality. Does Pixar understand its products as mitigating these processes or as contributing to them? Inside Out raises this question, perhaps without meaning to, and may just answer it without meaning to as well.

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Categories: Film, Reviews
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  1. January 1, 2016 at 10:08 am

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