Thursday, June 25, 2015

What We Learn From Pixar's Inside Out


I saw Pixar's new film, Inside Out today. I approached the film with a bit of trepidation. Here's why: for me, the last few Pixar films have been. . . meh. Which is sad, because for a while Pixar ruled the animation scene using landmark artistry and story with feature films unforgettable in their originality, like Toy Story, The Incredibles, and Wall.E. But now sequel after sequel churning from the Disney juggernaut, and I'm sorry, Brave just didn't do it for me. (Yes, Merida's hair is amazing. Yes, she's not a skinny little waif, yay. But LOOKS AREN'T ENOUGH. I need story I can chew on. And I just didn't believe Merida would bring A BEAR into this castle full of bear killers. I mean, isn't our heroine enough of an independent thinker to say, "Wait here, Mom," while she goes in, gets the tapestry and brings it back out? Gah.)

Sorry about that. My rant was showing.

Inside Out felt like a return to those enchanting times, when Pixar presented creations that seemed distilled from raw laughter, genius, and passion.

I was spellbound by Inside Out. Pete Docter (director, Up, Monsters, Inc.) and his team have created something that feels completely original and yet familiar.

The film follows Riley and her five basic emotions (Joy, Sadness, Fear, Anger, and Disgust), as she moves with her parents from Minnesota to California, and the emotional upheaval the move causes.

The world-building of Riley's mind (the main setting for the film), is stunning. While we are shown how memories are made, cared for, and organized into short-term, long-term, and core memories, along with places such as the subconscious, the Train of Thought, Imaginationland, and a brilliant little place that processes abstract thought, we don't feel like we're being shown this world. There isn't a sense of, "Okay audience, this is this and that is that and pay attention here, this is important." As the story and characters grow, their interaction with the setting feels organic and compelling.

And what a setting it is. Basically, memories (those glowing balls in the trailer) are made moment to moment at Headquarters and then transferred during sleep to Long-Term Memory. Core memories, related to very strong emotions during formative years, are the foundation for pieces of personality (in the film, they are physical islands) that are linked to headquarters. Riley's personality islands include Family, Friendship, and Hockey. And all of the islands come from the happy core memories. Joy is mostly in charge, and she likes it that way. After all, Riley's parents call her their happy girl.

After the move to San Francisco, Sadness (played by Phyllis Smith) creates a new core memory, much to the dismay of Joy (Amy Poehler). And then Joy and Sadness are accidentally whisked away from Headquarters and deposited in Long-Term Memory, along with the core memories. They must find their way back, through the circuitous maze that is Riley's mind, while Fear, Anger, and Disgust attempt to run things during their absence.

Pete Docter does a fine job of balancing the narrative between two different storylines. Joy and Sadness must get back to Headquarters. Riley is struggling with this move. As Docter moves back and forth, we are imbued with a sense of urgency. We care about Riley, and we know she's not going to be okay until Joy and Sadness are back where they belong. We care about Joy and Sadness because they care about Riley. It's a delicate juggling act, and Docter employs each to give weight and immediacy to the other. Riley's personality structure begins to crumble, as the loss of her friends, favorite pastime, and familiar environment bring her life into disarray. There is a moment where we realize that Riley is in danger of going completely numb, because Joy refuses to let Sadness take the wheel. Her mantra, "We can fix this!" becomes the thing that holds Riley back.

In the end, Joy realizes that all of the emotions are necessary for Riley's emotional health.

So what do we learn from Inside Out? This is actually my favorite aspect of the film. The rich setting, lovable characters, interesting story, and stunning originality all serve to bring us this great little nugget. Ready?

It's okay to be sad.

No, really. That's it. It's that simple. Yes, psychiatrists and intellectuals and critics and everyone can get into complex explanations of the human mind and what Inside Out gets right and what it just has fun with and we can talk about what we're taught in modern society and how some of us are trying to challenge that, but really, it all comes down to this:

It's okay to be sad.

Alright, I'll talk a LITTLE about it. It's okay to feel your feelings. You don't always have to be happy to be loved and worthwhile to people. You are a complex being comprised of a wealth of emotions, and you're allowed to feel all of them. Sadness, anger, and fear aren't negative emotions, just as joy isn't a positive emotion. They just are what they are, and feeling them isn't good or bad. It just is. Now, you may feel "good" or "bad" depending on what emotions you're going through, but processing through them with another human being, as Riley finally does in Inside Out, will help you to a place of deeper understanding with yourself and others, as well as helping you move on.

This is Pixar's greatest lesson yet, I think. And I'm sooooo happy that they went there. If you would like to talk at more length about this with me, because believe me, I can wax philosophic on this topic, feel free to comment and we'll hash it out.

Thank you Pixar, for going there. You're making us think again, and that to me, is magical.

1 comment:

  1. Pixar nailed it. Such a unique take on mental illness, emotions, memories...just psychology in general. So awesome! Thanks Pixar for bringing us magic.


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