Lost in the Movies: Inside Out (The Unseen 2015)

Inside Out (The Unseen 2015)

"The Unseen" is a series in which I watch popular films for the first time. The list, which moves backwards in time, is based on the highest-ranked film I've never seen each year on Letterboxd (as of April 2018). Inside Out was #3 for 2015.

The Story: Eleven-year-old Riley Andersen's (Kaitlyn Dias') mindspace is as bright and colorful as it is safe and orderly. Her five primary emotions, presented in color-coded, personified form as the red Anger (Lewis Black), blue Sadness (Phyllis Smith), green Disgust (Mindy Kaling), purple Fear (Bill Hader), and effervescent yellow pixie Joy (Amy Poehler), run a well-regulated command center distributing glowing balls of visual memory through giant tubes (shades of Twin Peaks!). The strongest core memories power magical lands that exist across a canyon from these headquarters: Family Island, Goofball Island, Hockey Island, Friendship Island, and Honesty Island. The film delights in imaginative worldbuilding (Pixar-clever at its Pixar-cleverest), but also quickly develops its main plot: Riley's loving family is relocating from Minnesota to San Francisco just as their daughter begins to tiptoe into adolescent confusion. Traumatized by her removal from familiar touchstones, humiliated when she cries in front of her classroom, and eventually driven to run away from home after fighting with her parents (Diane Lane and - speaking of Twin Peaks - Kyle MacLachlan), Riley is no longer sure who she is. This chaos is reflected both in her external life and the now-upside-down interior world that Inside Out has lovingly crafted.

This scenario is meant not only to give the film an emotional grounding, but to test the limits and provide a conduit through all the nooks and crannies of Riley's mental landscape: the literal Train of Thought, the towering stacks and endless aisles of Long-Term Memory, the creampuff pastel aesthetic of Imagination Land, the trippy gauntlet of Abstract Thought (in which the cartoons become Picassolike cubist forms and even two-dimensional dots and lines), the show-biz shenanigans of Dream Studios (where the filmmakers delight in the gap between production process and immersive end result), and dreaded Memory Dump from which there can be no return - or can there? For these scenes, our ensemble becomes a bickering buddy team: Joy and Sadness traverse this landscape in an effort to restore Riley's personality after an emotional shutdown and get themselves back up to the command center after being accidentally ejected. Their companion Bing Bong (Richard Kind), Riley's long-abandoned imaginary pachyderm-ish friend, accompanies them part of the way but mostly the two (and especially the overconfident Joy) need to figure out how to help one another, because Riley can't go through life high on happiness: sometimes you have to sit with your sorrow too.

The Context:
Pixar dominated the first decade of the twenty-first century film industry with a truly astonishing run of titles - Monsters Inc., Finding NemoThe Incredibles, Ratatouie, Wall-E, and Up - dominating not only the box office but year-end, decade's end, even all-time critics' lists (Cars wasn't quite so beloved by critics but became the de facto "favorite film" of everyone under five for at least a dozen years). As Hollywood became more reliant than ever on bloated franchise adaptations and grimdark action spectacles, these ostensible kids' movies were celebrated for delivering well-rounded entertainment that adults could enjoy more than just about anything else on offer. If anything upheld the Golden Age traditions of classical storytelling, while coupling these timeworn satisfactions with clever conceptual hooks and cutting-edge technology, it was the relatively recent start-up linked to, but still scrappily independent from, the Disney empire (and co-owned by Steve Jobs, one of the most lionized individuals of the zeroes).

By 2015, however, the studio's star had begun to dim, with only Brave standing out during a slower-paced, sequel-heavy period of years. Pete Docter, director of Monsters, Inc. and Up, came to the rescue during the interim; shortly after the last of that triumphant run (with the massively popular but not exactly original Toy Story 3 still to come), Docter was inspired by his own daughter's growning pains to conceive a story about what goes on inside our heads. For years, the difficult project was assembled, with struggles to work out the complex, abstract visualization and plotting (for a while, Fear rather than Sadness was going to accompany Joy's odyssey, but a melancholy Docter switched sidekicks during a period of creative struggle). Inside Out was accepted far and wide as a momentous comeback, not simply a reiteration of Pixar's imaginative pleasures but an advance in terms of conceptual bravery and emotional resonance. The film earned over $850 million at the box office, near-perfect review averages, the Academy Award and Golden Globe for Best Animated Film (with a number of bodies recognizing not only its animation but its original screenplay) and has become a teaching tool in school in the years since. Rumors of a sequel - perpetually denied by Pixar - continue to circulate, with fan "trailers" on YouTube constantly confusing the matter. Not everyone's a fan; the filmmakers were sued by a psychologist who claimed that they stole her pitch about similar "emotion" characters dubbed "The Moodsters," but the lawsuit was dismissed since the claimant had already made these characters public.

My Response: To the extent I could share Inside Out's - and maybe aspects of the broader zeitgeist's - spirit of optimistic, productive engagement in June 2015, it was because of my immersion in video essay work. I'd finished Journey Through Twin Peaks earlier in the year and just begun creating semi-regular videos for Fandor Keyframe (a couple days after the Pixar film's premiere, they would post one of my favorite videos, on eye contact in Satyajit Ray's film The Big City - another psychological study of a character learning to navigate challenges in a new situation). On the other hand, my primary work was in flux as was my living situation: within a year, I'd move across the country. As summer wore on, there would soon be a dramatic, unfortunate onslaught of deaths of family friends (and some extended family); so the more troubled, unstable side of Inside Out could have been relatable too...if I'd seen it at the time! My reason for missing it was the same as for most of the late films on this list: I just wasn't going to movies much anymore (in fact, when I attended a Jacques Rivette/David Lynch retrospective at the end of the year, I realized that I was watching more films in theater in a theater that week than in the past year and a half). But this has also been a consistent pattern with Pixar too.

After the studio released its iconic Toy Story in 1995, when I was in sixth grade, I usually went to see these films on family outings, but beginning with Monsters, Inc. in 2001 I almost always skipped them in the cinema. This could seem perfectly explicable given that - despite their broad appeal - the films are targeted at children, but that never stopped plenty of my peers, cinephiles and casual moviegoers alike, who were keen to catch them all on the big screen. The only exceptions for me have been Ratatouie - a roommate who was a chef himself was really keen that we all go see it - and The Incredibles 2, which a friend's family was planning to see when I happened to visit. On my own? I almost always wait for home viewing a year or two later (Inside Out was an unusually long wait). It's not intentional but I wonder if there's an subconscious inclination at work, as I have a tendency to be initially skeptical in the face of universal acclaim. I am usually thoroughly entertained when I finally catch up with these movies (unlike, say, Armond White, who caused the Internet to melt down by nuking Toy Story 3's perfect Rotten Tomatoes score) but I do understand some of the holdouts to Pixar's charms.

There is a whiff of self-satisfaction to the studio's output and overall image, as it effortlessly knocks out audience- and critic-pleasing hit after hit without really challenging its audience too deeply: a child prodigy blessed with amazing facility but lacking a certain hard-won maturity. Expectations for family-friendly material set the bar low enough that, with an assist from a particularly rough period for Hollywood escapism, solid old-fashioned entertainment feels like more than enough. But if the hooks are frequently clever and brilliant, the actual dramatic action seldom expands storytelling conventions, and the animation - following the groundbreaking development of a CGI feature in the mid-nineties - stays within certain bounds. Pixar has wholly supplanted Disney's hegemonic presence in the world of big-budget cartoons (under the aegis of that very media empire, of course), and that comes with a certain trepidation. The brand cultivates the image of a "perfect student" who gets everything right without breaking a sweat, the sort that's easy to resent. All duly noted - and we'll return to the subject of the studio's broader cultural identity in the "Signs of the Time" section - but part of Inside Out's particular appeal is its hint of wry self-criticism (perhaps spurred by the perception that Pixar had fallen into a rut after its golden age).

As the film's heroine, Joy is both contagiously enthusiastic and more than a little annoying. Her ear-to-ear smile and cheerful management of personality crises within the command center slide easily into a bossy control freak persona that refuses to yield other emotions their place, reminding us that the tyranny of forced happiness can be as grating as any other domineering mode. And the film is well-aware of this tendency, sending her and us on a journey precisely to discover that both mindful practice and movie drama need multiple emotions in play in order to function in a healthy manner. Sadness is the perfect partner for Joy in this endeavor, and Docter's decision to shift away from the light-hearted buddy comedy of Joy and Fear to the more profound implications of this duo was a brilliant stroke, easy to take for granted in retrospective. Although we never get to know Sadness quite as well as Joy, Smith's dead-on voicework and the excellent character animation lend the character an amusing, and relatable, pathos. Pixar has always displayed this penchant for melancholy alongside its bright, shiny techno-cheer (the Toy Story protagonists always fear obsolecence while Up and Wall-E, both engage with fear of, or reaction to, loss - the latter inspiring my short reflection "Why are kids' movies sadder?").

I also loved the revelation - during a family dinner - that everyone's mindscape is structured differently, and that often we perceive each other through our own mental hierarchies. After Riley's control room leads us to assume that every individual's Joy runs the show, we learn that Riley's father is ruled by pent-up Anger while Sadness dominates Riley's mother. What's startling here is the hint of entirely different movies unfolding if we view the same material from a different angle - movies with a darker, more adult edge.  If there's ever another Inside Out, I'd love to see this momentary tease played out in an extended storyline, moving from exploration of a single character's emotional transition to interactions between two or more different emotional landscapes. The film establishes a template that could easily fuel an endless variety of individual stories, both for a particular character or as an anthology of different characters. Inside Out would make a great television show - perhaps the first real fusion of prestige TV and children's entertainment - if Pixar ever decided to branch out; given both this brand's and that form's synchronizations with the early twenty-first century zeitgeist, it's surprising they haven't made that move yet (how many times have the sentences "Cable TV is the new art cinema," or "Only Pixar carries on the classic Hollywood tradition," been written or spoken?). At the very least, Riley's Big Mood would make a hell of a Saturday morning cartoon.

If I recognized some of my broader reservations about Pixar onscreen and was occasionally exhausted by the onslaught of cleverness, I couldn't help but love the movie overall. For someone enamored of allegorical worldbuilding (I've touched on the idea of psycho-geography in both Twin Peaks and The Wind in the Willows), Inside Out is an utter delight start to finish. The ability to assemble abstract ideas into a physical cityscape feels like the logical conclusion of one of my favorite moments in Pixar, a brief glimpse that has stuck with me since I saw it twenty years ago: in A Bug's Life, the hero arrives at a "city" that is composed of odd little knicknacks tossed away in a field somewhere. If, as I'll continue to explore momentarily, Inside Out feels very meta-Pixar, it's also rather meta-Disney, reorganizing the neural pathways of the brain into colorful, friendly, if poignantly impermanent "lands" each with its own distinct character and design, positioned around a towering central hub. If Pinocchio predicted Disneyland with its literally clockwork attractions, bustling Alpine village layout, and hyper-themed Pleasure Island layout, then Inside Out exists as a bookend on the other end of corporate history. 

Signs of the Times: Like La La Land, Inside Out weaves together a version of contemporary reality and an idealized past, in this case more Anaheim than Hollywood in its utopian sub/urban planning. Of course, the film also stretches far beyond the insular (if increasingly ubiquitous) culture of Disney in its ramifications - for one thing, the perfectly-cast emotions read like a veritable who's who of popular late zeroes/early teens ensemble comedy: Kaling and Smith from the Office crew, Black from the Daily Show crew, Poehler and Hader from the Saturday Night Live crew. This is, by the way, the first film on our list not to involve millennials in any notable capacity: Doter is peak Gen X and aside from early boomer Black and late boomer MacLachlan, the cast are all Xers as are the onscreen parents. As for Riley, both the character and the slightly-older voice actress belong to whatever you want to dub the generation following millennials (Gen-Z is surely as temporary a moniker as Gen-Y was, and demographers seem to be leaning toward iGeneration - like it or hate it).

There's something - maybe a few things - distinctly "Obama era" about Inside Out. From the cheerfully pragmatic nature of the story's psychology to the smooth, rounded iDesign aesthetic of Riley's headspace, from the dad's occupation at some kind of tech start-up to the relatively mild nature of the protagonist's crisis, the entire world of the film speaks to professional-class liberal confidence on the eve of Trump. As a love letter to flexible, thoughtful technocracy, Inside Out is naturally a flattering self-portrait of the creative culture at Pixar itself: collaborative but hierarchical, efficient but still soulful, envelope-pushing within tight structures. It really is difficult to find a studio whose ethos was more in sync with the zeitgeist of the early to mid-teens even if, ironically, the majority of its successes occurred under the cruder, more chaotic Bush administration (as such, in a sense Pixar and its ilk birthed Obama rather than vice versa).

Of course, the bourgie comfort of these years rested on the groaning foundation of widening economic inequality, growing racial turmoil, the advance of the global right, vicious partisan entrenchment, and an unchecked climate crisis, so beyond the more glib aspects of Inside Out's synchronicity, there may be a deeper resonance to the message that it's dangerous to suppress the deep truths of Sadness for too long. And within a couple years, the studio itself would experience a blow to its own comfortable public image - but also a vindication for hardworking employees who felt marginalized under that corporate persona. Founding figure and chief creative officer John Lasseter, whose bubbly behavior and cheerful confidence personified Pixar to many, was ousted during the #MeToo movement based on years of physical and verbal sexual misconduct; this sort of entitlement could no longer take its own power for granted. Given the way that the studio's culture is often echoed in its own movies, one wonders how future Pixar movies will reflect this shift in self-image.

Other Films: As is often the case with Pixar, Inside Out made an unusually strong showing for an original story, reaching the #4 spot in the U.S. In fact, it took some true titans to beat it: at the end of the year, The Force Awakens replaced Jurassic World, from earlier that summer, as the biggest worldwide hit of all time, with both of those edging out Avengers: Age of Ultron (like World and Awakens, a sequel to a movie that had once held the all-time title itself). Rounding out the domestic top five was Furious 7. See a pattern? The eighth Star Wars, fourth Jurassic Park, second Avengers (and eleventh MCU), seventh Fast and the Furious, third Despicable Me, and fourth Hunger Games surrounded Inside Out on either side. While franchise films dominated the box office, there were plenty of memorable standalone films for viewers to explore: The MartianBridge of Spies, The Big Short, The Hateful Eight, The Witch, Carol, Joy, BrooklynStraight Outta Compton, Ex MachinaRoom (for which Brie Larson won Best Actress), The Revenant (for which Leonardo DiCaprio won Best Actor) and and the year's Best Picture winner, Spotlight, which traced the thirteen-year-old story of the Boston Globe's groundbreaking report on the Catholic Church sex scandal.

That said, with both The Force Awakens and Jurassic World leading the way in terms of audiences, 2015 was definitely a year of old franchises reinventing themselves. Two other examples bear mentioning: one for its triumphant linkage with the zeitgeist across many decades, the other for its faceplanting failure after just a few years. Perhaps the most beloved movie of the year was a reboot helmed by a seventysomething auteur, combining breathtaking action with a feminist, social-justice framing. Mad Max: Fury Road both epitomized and transcended its era as effectively in its own way as Inside Out, while its raging sense of resistance and eco-collapse perhaps also lends itself to the impending epoch more readily than Pixar's thoughtful, clean-scrubbed optimism. On the other hand, beloved zeroes HBO show Entourage returned for a big-screen spinoff following the series finale a mere four years earlier - but the film's cavalier womanizing and frat pack bro comedy was scorned by critics and many viewers as a relic from a long-gone era. Boy, had the cultural moment changed quickly, at least as far as the media discourse (which once praised the show as hip and edgy) was concerned. A celebration of Hollywood louts, whose macho swagger and lavish wealth-flaunting defied not just feminist critiques but post-recession resentment of the 1%? Who would buy that? The coming year would demonstrate that perhaps this vision was not so obsolete as its would-be gravediggers wished.

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