Tuesday, August 11, 2015

Inside Out

If I'd gone ahead and actually kept to my schedule, the write-up for Inside Out might have sounded just a little bit sour.  Much has been made about the film's approach to growing up, about how the film serves as a primer to understanding the inevitable ebbs and flows of human emotions - how it's ok to feel, and how it is that sometimes we seem to be feeling everything at once.  In this bodying of abstract concepts, Inside Out excels: it is clearly imagined, simplistically rendered, and meticulous in its mapping.  It's so tidy, in fact, that I couldn't shake the feeling that the lines were a little too clean, the underlying narrative a little too forced, and that I'd just watched an over-budget video produced for elementary school health classes. It didn't seem messy or personally delineated enough, and yet it also went overboard in its attempts to pull at the audience's heartstrings.

Disney World used to have this Wonders of Life pavilion in Epcot Center.  The thing closed years ago, but before it did it was this strange, off-kilter lesson in human biology that seemed custom designed to create uncomfortable moments in every family vacation.  Here you could find, for example, a Martin Short narrated short film called "The Making of Me", in which animated sperm raced to cross the finish line and fertilize an anthropomorphically sexy egg.  You could also find Body Wars, a simulator ride around the concept of shrinking down and following white blood cells as they wage their microscopic battles beneath your skin.  Finally, though, there was the "Cranium Command" attraction in which - you guessed it - a tiny character tries to wrangle the various forces at odds in a single pre-pubescent human to trigger appropriate responses.
Needless to say, that experience was pretty much all I could think of as the film opened and revealed the control center in which the dominant emotions bicker endlessly in the mind of an 11-year old girl.  The film breaks things down further than Cranium Command had the opportunity to in its short run time, and focuses on emotions over parts of the body, choosing to use Joy (Amy Poehler), Sadness (Phyllis Smith), Disgust (Mindy Kaling), Anger (Lewis Black), and Fear (Bill Hader) as a primary core.  It's not surprising to learn that the film is somewhat influenced by that defunct amusement park attraction or that director Pete Docter actually worked on it early in his career with Disney. Inside Out is a hyper-finessed version of the concept that takes the time to develop the complexities of experience and emotion until it arrives at essentially the same conclusion: we function best when the seemingly disparate parts of our body work together. It's a lesson in teamwork and overcoming differences at the chemical level, and that's a big concept for a summer movie, an even bigger one for an animated film geared at kids.

Which is where my inability to forget the Cranium Command experiences of my youth comes in to play: just as walking through the Wonders of Life pavilion dredged up conversations about growing up and "changing" that I didn't want to acknowledge on my visit to an otherwise magical kingdom, I'm dubious of Inside Out's appeal to actual kids.  It's safe to say, at this point, that the film plays far better to adults.  As we follow our emotion-management team through the childhood traumas of moving, resenting parents, and discovering the bittersweet sensations that accompany nostalgia, the film packs in keen observations on what it means to grow up and how easy it is to feel like the world is crumbling around us.  Growing up is, after all, a kind of tragedy, and Pixar wants us to repackage that and make it comfortable, universal, somehow understood.  It's a scripted tutorial for getting through Your First Existential Crisis, and a necessary reminder for everyone as they grow up and find it happening again, and again, and again...

I can imagine growing to resent this as a child if only because I can imagine parents and teachers using the characters to speak to fluctuations in my behavior.  We need this movie, but I feel the pain of the generation who grows up with parents who assess their melancholy moments in terms of a deadweight, bespectacled Sadness.
Ultimately, Inside Out is a deceptively simple kind of smart and the sort of entertainment that has much practical application as it does anything else.  The jokes don't always land, the candy colored visuals often clash with the underlying themes, Joy has way too much screen time, and there's a bit of a disconnect between the film's formal design and the audience it winds up connecting with the most. While I'm a firm believer that Disney/Pixar properties are for all ages, it is strange to find that one of their most conceptually difficult films is also among its least visually sophisticated.  There's a flatness to the animation, a blandness to the character design.  Part of this, I suppose, is necessary.  In the same way, the weirdly tidy, universal aspects of the film are equally necessary.  Inside Out isn't interested in telling a truly individual, fully developed, messy story about young Riley, here.  They're working to find, instead, an easy to manage terrain that will allow them to explore big ideas in small spaces -- and that's ok.  Sometimes being truly inventive in some avenues requires a lack in others, and that's what I see as the cost of Inside Out.  Maybe one day they'll make a sequel, a sort of Boyhood as seen from the cranium command center. Maybe one day they'll be so bold as to tackle the same subject using the adult characters (the glimpses we get are problematic, here). Or, you know, maybe they don't. Maybe it's just fine the way it is.

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