A new Pixar film is an event, like it or not. Some are better (e.g. Ratatouille) than others. Advance word suggested Inside Out was one of the better ones, the best in the past few years. Alas, I fear it’s no more than middling Pixar, though there’s promise here.
The plot is simple: Family moves from Minnesota to San Francisco. Young daughter, Riley, age 11, is upset – where are my friends! – depressed, and tries to run away. But doesn’t. The end.
Common enough. But hardly the stuff of a feature-length film. There is, however, more to Inside Out than the bare bones story. The conceit of this film is an old convention, sometimes known as psychomachia, in which a person’s mind is allegorized as the interaction between competing agents. You’ve seen it in cartoons before – a devil will appear over one shoulder of a character and an angel over the other shoulder. Pinocchio’s conscience, Jiminy Cricket, and Dumbo’s friend and motivational coach, Timothy Mouse, are in this tradition. So is Remy’s Gasteau from Ratatouille, which I’ve discussed in Psychomachia Modern, with a Digression into Shakespeare.
So, most of Inside Out’s action takes place in Riley’s mind, which is peopled with Joy, Sadness, Fear, Disgust, Anger, and Bing-Bong, an imaginary friend from childhood. Each is characterized by a different dominant color and a different shape. While Fear, Anger, and Disgust remain at the control center of Riley’s mind, Joy and Sadness go on a journey into the unconscious to retrieve a lost memory. In this they’re helped by Bing-Bong, who leads them in an effort to recover an imaginary rocket-wagon. There’s danger, of course; they get lost and get into trouble. But things work out in the end.
On the one hand, this is wonderful. This is what animation is for, to go where live action cannot go. Pixar takes advantage of the freedom animation affords and steps away from the annoying photorealism all too common in CGI animation as it has evolved. We need more of this, lots more.
But it doesn’t quite work – though I note that when I saw the film the audience did break out in applause at the end. One problem is that the merely mental characters, the agents of Riley’s mind – Joy, Sadness, Fear, Disgust, and Anger – seemed too much like “real” characters. They seem to have motivations and desires of their own and each seemed richer and more inherently diverse than implied by the one-dimensionality of their assignments in Riley’s mind. Because the drama of these inner agents gets more screen time than Riley herself, she almost gets lost and becomes a one-dimensional puppet to a handful of bickering masters, each as interesting and compelling as she is.
To be sure, we do know that they are merely parts of her. The governing conceit is obvious enough, and we understand it. But, that’s what it is, mere knowledge. I suppose this is a natural result of the governing conceit, but it’s confusing and almost falls apart.
The other problem is with the design of Riley’s inner world. It doesn’t on the whole seem particularly well motivated. Here I’m referring to the visual look, not the various creatures and regions Pixar chose for their allegory. The control room is large, so large it makes the bridge on the Enterprise look like a cramped closet. And it’s at the top of a tall tower that seems miles away from everywhere else. Why? And why all the long narrow bridges between here there and everywhere?
The obvious answer to that last question is that, because they are long and narrow, crossing those bridges is very dangerous. That’s something Joy has to do and it’s scary. But what’s that have to do with Riley and her problems? The connection seems forced, arbitrary, and round about.
It’s not at all clear to me what can be done about this. I understand that Pixar is visualizing the mind, and that the mind doesn’t have any natural visual form nor, for that matter, is there any set of well-accepted cultural conventions for doing this – which might serve just as well. So we’ve got an arbitrary mental landscape peopled by mental agents whose trials and tribulations dominate the story of the person they’re supposed to be inside of. It’s all interesting, imaginative, and doesn’t quite hang together. There’s no compelling imaginative logic.
I can’t help but comparing Inside Out to Hayao Miyazaki’s Spirited Away. For one thing, Miyazaki-san is beloved by the folks at Pixar. For another, Spirited Away is much the same story as Inside Out. A family moves to a new place and the young daughter is upset. But most of the action takes place Somewhere Else. In the Miyazaki that place is a strange bathhouse for the gods where the daughter, Chihiro, must work to save her parents, who’ve been transformed into pigs. Where Pixar’s Pete Docter gives us a psychic allegory that doesn’t quite work, Miyazaki gives us mythic adventure. Miyazaki’s film is compelling from beginning to end in a way that Docter’s is not.
But I’m glad that Docter tried and I hope the film makes enough money so he’ll get to try again and that others will follow. I believe there’s imaginative gold in them thar hills, but it’s going to take more digging to find it.