Tuesday, August 4, 2015

Michael Barrier and Andrew Osmond on Inside Out

Still, I couldn't get past the film's governing conceit, that the personified emotions inside eleven-year-old Riley's head were somehow distinct from Riley herself. Who, or what, is Riley, if the emotions governing her life are not central to her being? To descend to a lower metaphysical plane, or maybe just call the story's craftsmanship into question, it seems to me that Inside Out's personified emotions, to be credible as such, would have to be one-dimensional—that is, nothing but fearful or angry or whatever—whereas most of them are not. Joy is so much more than joyful, especially as voiced by Amy Poehler, that she's really the story's protagonist, with a much broader emotional range than Riley herself. The girl is little more than a puppet, a sort of latterday Pinocchio, perhaps, if I might invoke another problematic Disney feature.
This child, Riley, is portrayed unusually for a Hollywood cartoon, but much less so for anime. Inside Out is about the end of her childhood, her moving towards adolescence, and the uncertainty and anger she feels. To make this less abstract, the script ties this in with Riley’s parents moving from Minnesota to San Francisco (Pixar’s real-life home); Riley’s troubles fitting in; and her realisation that a treasured part of her life is over and gone forever. In her head, this plays through the shifting relationship between Riley’s main emotions, Joy and Sadness.

Anime is different; it prefers to depict troubled kids at their own level. For many fans, anime is practically defined by angsty, angry teenage boys. In Akira, Tetsuo’s incontinent mental and physical changes were animated as a monster in an Olympic stadium. He was followed by Shinji in Evangelion, Light in Death Note, Eren in Attack on Titan and many more. The boy Ame in Wolf Children is interesting; he’s the reverse of Riley, sad in childhood, only finding joy as he grows up, though he still breaks his mother’s heart.

But closer to Riley, there are girls like Chihiro in Spirited Away, Momo in A Letter to Momo and Anna in Ghibli’s upcoming When Marnie was There. As I discuss elsewhere on this blog, these three girls – all about Riley’s age – share an animation director, Masashi Ando, who specialises in “murky, painful” emotions. Chihiro, Momo and Anna also spend much of their respective films being unhappy, more than a Hollywood toon could allow. Inside Out sidesteps the problem by telling most of its story through the aggressively cheerful Joy, not the increasingly mopey Riley.
There's much more there, including a mention of Cranium Command, a now defunct attraction from Walt Disney World, which depicted the inside of a boy's mind and included animation by a young Pete Docter.

Last, a comment I sent to Barrier:
What I'm wondering is why this film got such extreme praise as it it. I understand there's something of a "Pixar can do no wrong" vibe in some quarters, but the notion that this presages a new era in animation, animation directed at adults no less, seems extreme even for that. Something else is going on, though I don't quite know what.

Maybe it's that the film's main 'bug' has been misconstrued as a 'feature'. This is because Riley's inner gnomes outclass Riley herself thereby forcing you to do a bit of thinking to keep things together. That thinking is being reconceived as adultness rather than as an aesthetic flaw.
Earlier posts about Inside Out:

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