How Inside Out Typifies Pixar’s Magic
Per tradition, a short precedes Pixar’s new movie. It’s about volcanoes in love, tenderly soundtracked by “White Sandy Beach”-reminiscent musical narration. In its few minutes, Pixar’s singular value, and what we fans rely on them for, is distilled to a few pieces of blazing resonant evidence. The faces the animators have given their ancient, dormant lead — old but not youthless, his stony crags as vaguely cute as they are vaguely grotesque — nail the deepest and most visceral common human emotions, pain and love, in specific but instantly relatable shades, and completely without the strain or affect of what CGI filmmaking’s still-sizable uncanny valley has led us to expect. Think of Groot, hovering ungainly through more grounded action, unflatteringly matched with a cheap, lazily rendered sidekick, and reliant on Vin Diesel’s vocabulary of pain for efficacy. When Pixar’s volcano smiles in benevolent simpatico with luckier couples of birds or dolphins, his giant visage burns with tenderness, and when he surrenders that peace to the chronic memory of his loneliness, you feel harder than is comfortable all of his bereft years. For brief perilous seconds in this breezy little film, he and a girl volcano might not be united, and every last member of our audience from toddlerhood to late middle age was in the painful grip of this risk.
Naturally, the worst doesn’t happen. But Pixar’s ability to shepherd viewers there and still fully repay its wrenching moments with cathartic simulations of happiness has been their uncanny wheelhouse since Toy Story. Part of that movie’s flawlessness was the effortless complexity of its relationships. This was the first time people had been treated to a narrative in that medium on that scale, and though much has been made of certain awkward movements Andy and his mother are arguably guilty of, even the latter, a faceless cameo, has an emotional presence far beyond the throwaway. It’s possible to feel not just the severity of Andy’s loss when Woody and Buzz are missing, in direct opposition to his contagious joy for both the old friend and the new one, but the roots of his loss — his mother’s concern, amplified by the absence of a dad (never once addressed), and her studious handling of her kids, replete with the careful deviations from direct honesty parenting requires, are so apt they’re amusing. The family politics are even more thrilling in their implicit complexity when we get to Sid and Hannah’s house. And the gamut of petty feelings the animators plus Tom Hanks (in a performance more acute than the two he’d just won Oscars for) pull Woody through without ever really skirting the unsympathetic is just wizardly.
Pixar’s best work hinges on this attunement to the sweetest and hardest human feelings. Every part but one (Wallace Shawn’s) in The Incredibles is depicted poignantly; action movies never put nearly as much thought into the motives of their most horrible characters as Syndrome got (again, in tandem with a feat of casting in the unlikely Jason Lee). The father-son dynamic that carries Finding Nemo is 20,000 leagues more touching than Kramer vs. Kramer, but the movie spends most of its time on atypically compatible strangers co-navigating a big ruthless world against which something like Planes, Trains and Automobiles is unbearably cynical. Speaking of bears, Brave’s mother-daughter depiction, giftwrapped and bowed by Emma Thompson’s equally shrewd work as a strengthworn queen mother and brand-new bear, is also uncommonly insightful. And speaking of atypically compatible strangers, need I even address the world of aching humanity Up manages like it’s no puzzle at all? The little girl in Monsters, Inc. that saves it from Billy Crystal and co-director David Silverman, the robot romance in Wall-E nearly breathtaking enough to help you forgive the clunky human subplot, and so on. You wouldn’t cry after Pixars if the relationships weren’t wholly recognizable. We expect this as we don’t from other studios. And as it happens, the company just outdid themselves.
My biggest fear with Inside Out had to do with the casting. After years of DreamWorks etc. movies that capitalize on the current crop of box-office comics — paying Seth Rogen, one of the least effortful actors of all time, for voice work! — here was Pixar’s first cross-pollenization with that universe. Amy Poehler is a maestro, Mindy Kaling close behind, and Phyllis Smith a lynchipin of the American Office’s heroic flakes of its ancestor’s pioneering sitcom vérité. But all are enmeshed in a hip dryness I would argue has been as detrimental to the emotional resonance of American comedy as Pixar has been conversely beneficial to family movies. When I saw the cast I could feel Bill Hader’s Fear, drawn like a hyper pander, and Lewis Black’s Anger, played by a comic whose shtick Elaine May recently blasted away in two sentences it was clear she’d been saving up since the early millennium, grating me. And I feared the writing would follow suit, the way it had complemented Billy Crystal and the sitcom staples who featured in Pixar’s insufficiently felt sophomore stretch: A Bug’s Life, Toy Story 2, Monsters, Inc. These were movies that cherished gags above that thrill of acing emotional conditions, the result a stylistic incongruity and emaciated impact until John Goodman and some tot stepped up a third of the way into Monsters to give the director and company pause about dramatic possibilities to which they’d forgotten their own unique passageway. I imagine it as a watershed realization.
Years later, with Andrew Stanton tainted by the scrupulously reported John Carter fiasco, John Lasseter tainted by the certainty that his folly Cars had earned a sequel, and Brad Bird famously his own eccentric, Monsters helmer Pete Docter has evolved into Pixar’s resident shaman heartrender. This is exclusively on the strength of Up, whose decade-condensing opening recap of a devoted marriage ranks with the City Lights coda for shorthand silent devastation (and City Lights had the benefit of title cards!), and now Inside Out, which Docter has movingly reported his own experiences raising an 11-year-old daughter inspired in a handful of worthwhile interviews. An older friend of mine suggested that Inside Out isn’t “a kid’s movie”, and in the sense that single-digit tykes probably won’t be able to attend its structure and nuances with much investment, I agree. But it stands as a perfect movie for introspective 11-year-olds and beyond, 11 (give or take) signifying the moment where, all of a sudden, that world of complication with which you’ve only been cursorily acquainted begins breaking down your door and pouring in your windows. It treats this condition with empathy, and breaks down the possible factors of the conflict with parsable utilitarianism, even if those factors sometimes just have to do with serotonin and its relatives.
If the movie has a flaw it’s that Riley is a fairly limited presence in her own story. Though their movies sprawled, you felt better acquainted with the more peripheral Bonnie and Violet by the end of Toy Story 3 and The Incredibles. That Riley can’t interact with her anthropomorphized emotions person-to-person palpably limits both her presence and that of her parents (though bit parts at best, they still hired Kyle McLachlan and Diane Lane — what class!). The movie, which only covers a day, feels small; when a lead reached her tearful I-don’t-know-if-I-can moment I was surprised we were already there, and I’d had to pee for a while. Still, Riley is an affectionately rendered and perfectly performed modern little girl, and the care that went into this insanely complicated premise justifies the tiny scale over which Docter elected to thoroughly explore it. And that same tender directorial hand nullifies my concerns about his actors. In the grand tradition of almost every prior Pixar casting, Docter employs his comedians for how they speak, not what they purvey. Anger only judiciously raises his voice, Fear balances tolerable mugging for the kiddos with evidence of a working adult brain (not that components of a working adolescent brain have them), and Disgust is a sparsely quipping cog until the climax briefly, cleverly spotlights her.
But Inside Out is mostly about Joy and Sadness and their dynamic. Consider how profound that is — a movie about the struggle between joy and sadness, literally rendered. And both characters effectively apotheosize both actors’ careers heretofore. A known untrained, Smith only needed to show up to do worthwhile work, but this is the first time her stalwart dour aura has been respected in the way it’s always merited. And Poehler is the primary driver of the movie’s success, a la Kelly MacDonald in Brave or Lou Romano in Ratatouille. She long ago proved her mettle as a go-getter archetype with heartstring potential, but even at Parks and Rec’s sweetest she had to undermine herself, both for her own comic options and to mesh with her increasingly cartoon context. Here, she’s a full human being, her ray of sunshine quickly revealed as an unwitting solipsist via unchecked denial when a more feckless, pitiful coworker threatens her vision of leadership. The idea of a working in service of a person’s happiness missing how her lack of cooperation endangers it is such a totally realistic noncliché, you wonder how its commonplace complexity has seen such scant depiction in live action art. Meanwhile, the way Joy and Sadness end up compromising for a victory is too pivotal to recount outright, but as symbolism its therapy is astounding. In a single impermanent young-girl struggle, the movie offers epiphanic perspective on those tough memories we’ll never fully reconcile with. No matter how far away you get from the strife being 11 comes with, the film represents an immersively encouraging model of recovery.
If Inside Out is gifted a The Problem Nobody is Talking About thinkpiece, the provocateur behind it might zero in on the heteronormativity of its setup, which it’s fair to find tiresome, though this is also the first Pixar ever to acknowledge the existence of gay people (in a great sly aside). We all know #notallmoms are financially subordinate or covertly fantasize about Bahamanian hunks, and #notalldads are sports-obsessed and intuition-deficient, and the film’s only bad line makes that joke about toilet seats that can die with the patriarchy. In a weird way, the nuclear family traditionalism (though who’s to say Riley isn’t gay?), and related reliance on tropes about new schools and bad dreams and imaginary boyfriends who live in Canada, feel like the only concession to being a Kid’s Flick, where forced simplicity and familiarity are requirements. Then again, dispiriting as that might seem when its director’s last movie was an anomaly featuring a Matisse-meets-Dali megafowl and photorealistic dogs laughing through translators and an Asian costar who never drew any attention to his race, the Pixarian genius has always come from how deftly it enlivens — you know, animates — the familiar. Toys, fish and superheroes; love, loss and family. And in addition to functioning as a deserving celebration of its own novel concept, the credit-coda tour of other “headquarters” (highlight: the cat’s) suggests endless possibilities for using this film to frame your own experience.
Maybe you’re the kind of comfortably devoted pessimist who can be tickled by the rat who realizes his potential, or the college monster who accepts the limits of his, without having your dark outlook inspired into transformation. But I honestly don’t believe anybody can leave immune to this new one’s effusive hope, in part from its forthrightness about the inevitability of distress, and the occasional necessity of sincere negativity. In the throes of 2010s malaise, validated daily by violence, corruption and looming doom, this movie has the power to reframe any and every human struggle as a moment of misfired resolution with your own complex, fragile emotional makeup, as well as the people around you locked in their own complicated struggles inside and out. Even if the sum of the conflict is just a move, the movie suggests heavier stuff — it puts its 11-year-old protagonist on a city bus she pays for with a stolen credit card and walks to and boards alone, and on top of that I have a marvelously well-adjusted cousin who moved around the same age and got suicidal over it. My love and I, late twentysomethings who often feel as if we’ve been wrenched by trauma permanently off the good path, slipped as we’re sometimes prone into arduous hard memories and tense silence just before the movie started. But by the end, we were both in tears, hands entwined, united again by the depth of our unspoken understanding, by the depth of our care and passion for one another. A movie did that to us, for us. So go see it, and let it heal you a little.