It’s easily the best Pixar movie in half a decade, but is it also one of the most countercultural Hollywood films to come along in years?
The thing that makes “Inside Out” work, per se, is that it addresses something we all know to be true but never really talk about. By and large, it’s our experiences that shape us, with our neurological wiring trying to play catch up throughout our lives. As a society, we’ve become such staunch biological determinists that we’ve almost forgotten that external stimuli plays a role in who we are; with the ingenious homunculi plot mechanic, Pixar’s latest film pounds that into our skill, without once being overly blunt or overly preachy.
Of course, the core concept of “Inside Out” is nothing new. The idea of the “Cartesian theater” has been one of the longest-held philosophical constructs in Western culture -- in fact, the exact same gimmick formed the basis of a short-lived Fox sitcom, “Herman’s Head.” Considering the success of “Inside Out,” perhaps it’s well worth Pixar’s time to explore other continental philosophy stalwarts -- or perhaps other long-forgotten television series from the lame duck network (I can only imagine the wonders they could spin out of “Drexell's Class” and “Woops!” )
The premise of “Inside Out” is so simple, one may erroneously write it off as a “non-story.” A small Midwestern family leaves the frozen tundra of Minnesota behind for the brave new world of San Fran; to capture the pain and confusion of moving, the film focuses on the innermost thoughts of an 11-year-old girl, as she pines for the good old days and tries to make sense of life on the Left Coast.
It’s such a standard coming-of-age yarn, which in and of itself, is fairly aberrational for contemporary mainstream movie fare. Ultimately, “Inside Out” is a tremendous film because it shares more in common with “The 400 Blows” than “Big Hero 6” -- it’s the human pathos that serves as the bedrock of the film, not the grandiose visuals.
Inside the head of the film’s Lilliputian protagonist Riley, five anthropomorphic emotions -- Joy, Sadness, Disgust, Fear and Anger -- take turns commanding the cerebral control boards. As you would expect, each character take the wheel whenever the exterior situation calls for it. For example, when presented an all-broccoli pizza, Disgust (personified as a materialistic, ditzy green blob that would feel right at home in the cast of “Mean Girls”) yanks a few knobs, and Anger -- brilliantly portrayed by Lewis Black, who I’ve heard others describe quite literally as “that one guy who is always angry” -- starts running the show when it’s time to sass back at dear old dad. Taking the plot to another level, we periodically jump inside the heads of supporting cast members as well, including a father who envisions a hockey game unfurling before his eyes during a boring conservation, and a mother whose emotional gamut consists of a platoon of bobbed haircut sporting M&Ms. Towards the end of the film, we even get a glimpse inside the head of a few pets, with results that -- while predictable -- are nonetheless hilarious.
You may be thinking to yourself, “Jimbo, that doesn’t sound like a very exciting movie.” Well, you would be quite wrong, bucko, since the film has one of the best plot mechanics I’ve seen in quite some time. You see, every time the main character experiences something, it becomes a memory, which is literalized in the form of a glowing orb. While most of the memory orbs are placed in the girl’s subconscious (personified as a giant library of sorts) a few extremely powerful memories -- referred to as “core memories” -- are kept within reach at all times, just in case an instant pick-me-up is needed. During a skirmish over these memories, Joy and Sadness are sucked up a vacuum and cast into the deepest recesses of the girl’s mind. This creates a two-pronged plot, in which the other three emotions try to steer the character in her day-to-day life while the two “lost” emotions try to find their way back to the control room.
The visualized subconscious of the protagonist is one of the more inspired set pieces I’ve seen in any recent cinematic offering. In addition to the never-ending hall of memories (periodically purged by a janitorial crew, who chuck needless memories into an inescapable abyss), the world also encompasses an array of infrastructural puns (for example, a literal “train of thought” and a room where concepts are literally deconstructed) as well as a few theme-park-like realms dedicated to the most important constructs in Riley’s life, such as her love of hockey and family. There’s even a gigantic studio where Riley’s fears and concerns are transformed into Roman a Clef plays; the productions unfurl inside a literal “dream theater” whenever she dozes off.
Ultimately, the film reaches a brilliant dénouement, with two plot lines merging seamlessly. In the “real world,” Riley finds herself on a bus ride back to Minnesota all by herself (complete with a detour through Oakland), while Joy and Sadness race against the clock to get back to the cerebral command center so they can change her mind. It’s very simplistic stuff, but the execution is just about flawless. Needless to say, this is the best Pixar production since “Toy Story 3,” and a happy return to form that, hopefully, will lead to the beloved studio’s second golden age.
Of course, it’s not a perfect film. There are some doldrums here and there, and a few of the nostalgic sequences tend to drag a bit too long. While the overarching message of the movie is that it’s perfectly normal for happiness and sadness to intertwine, the movie really telegraphs the point, so when Sadness and Joy do come to understand why other each is needed, it’s not really as effective as it could’ve been. That, and there is a GIGANTIC plot hole that the movie all but ignores, when even the little ankle-biters in the audience probably notice it. Hell, even the filmmakers themselves can’t come up with a good explanation for it.
On the whole, however, it’s a very, very enjoyable film, with some truly hilarious moments from Anger’s desire to use swear words to an old commercial jingle that just can’t be sublimated to a throwaway joke about the old teeth-falling-out reverie to a pre-teen boy freaking out at the mere sight of a girl to Riley’s “dreamboat” being a Canadian who would die for her to the emotions receiving a new control board, complete with a mysterious button labeled “puberty.” Furthermore, some of the sequences involving Bing Bong -- Riley’s old childhood imaginary friend -- are pretty emotional; in short, this movie nails you with pretty much every feeling a movie can hit you with, which is one of the greatest meta-achievements in 2010s cinema to this point. Oh, and the “Lava” short before the movie? It will probably make you cry like a biggity-bitch, too.
“Inside Out” is certainly a tremendous romp, perhaps the best you will see at a mainstream theater this summer. Alas, as virtually every other Pixar movie contained some form of thinly veiled social commentary, I keep my inner-eye open throughout the film to receive any potential political and cultural messages. Seeing as how Pixar is pretty much the only conservative Hollywood construct with any political power, I wasn’t necessarily surprised by the film’s furtive endorsement of heteronormativity. The cross-country trip from Minnesota (the home state of director Pete Docter, it is perhaps worth noting) to San Francisco certainly was not a random selection, and in case you missed it, note how all of the older characters have homunculi emotions that are fixed to their gender. While Riley’s emotions are a potpourri of male and female characters, her mom and dad’s innermost thoughts are represented solely by characters aligned with their sex. The same can be said of the teacher, the bus driver and even the broccoli-pizza-slinging goth-server. Interestingly enough, one of the other fifth grade characters -- who at 11, is already wearing eye shadow -- has an all female cast of emotions. Does that signify the concrete nature of gender identity, that -- due to our early childhood experiences -- we form a permanent sense of self around puberty?
But the most interesting underlying theme about “Inside Out” is its message about the necessity of experiencing a wide array of emotions. Today’s kids are taught as early as kindergarten that sometimes, they experience thoughts or impulses that they just shouldn’t have. As a result, many five and six year olds are now being placed on psychotropic medications for depression, anxiety and hyperactivity. The most countercultural thing about this movie is that it comes and out tells us that we NEED to feel the gamut of emotions, that it’s totally normal to feel stressed, upset, repulsed, outraged and lifeless from time-to-time. By shying away from sadness, the film tells us, we lose out on a pivotal part of the human experience. It allows us a mechanism to grieve and move beyond trying circumstances, and in conjunction with happiness, allows us to feel nostalgia, that wondrous, bittersweet longing for our long-gone pasts.
It’s not often that you see ANY big budget movie make such a simple, heartfelt declaration about the human condition, let alone one aimed primarily at children. How strange -- and frankly, distressing -- it is that the only Hollywood film that includes a character using the term “abstract thought” this summer is in a kids flick, no?
Three and Half Tofu Dogs out of Four