Dir. Pete Docter. Starring Amy Poehler, Kaitlyn Dias, Phyllis Smith
That’s my Middle West – not the wheat or the prairies or the lost Swede towns but the thrilling, returning trains of my youth and the street lamps and sleigh bells in the frosty dark and the shadows of holly wreaths thrown by lighted windows on the snow.
I have taught The Great Gatsby to almost every class I have ever stood in front of. That’s the beginning of one of the last paragraphs in the book, not long before Nick starts to recap his last conversations with Jordan Baker and Tom Buchanan and before he tells us about being boats against the current. There are many paragraphs in that novel which are all but tattooed on me, but that one is the only one that has ever gotten one of my students to say, “Your voice sounds different.”
When I was 22 years old and in my first year of teaching – in my first semester of teaching – I was in many ways unanchored. This is a common phenomenon for anyone starting a career away from home, but how fresh it felt belied how common the feeling was. It really had not hit me until that moment in December, when I began to think about how Nick Carraway’s trains home from college felt rather like the planes home from my own university. I loved to be in a window seat and be able to see the shape of western New Jersey against the Delaware, and to see the lights of Philadelphia underneath us, and to know that it was almost Christmas and to understand why it was adults got sentimental about Christmas anyway. I felt that yanking so strongly and I saw the city beneath me in orangepeel colors so clearly in my classroom in South Carolina. It remains the only time my voice has sounded different in my classroom, but then again, sometimes I let the kids read that paragraph.
In terms of plot and eyefeel, the Pixar movie most similar to Inside Out is Monsters, Inc. Both were directed by Pete Docter, both take place in a world ancillary to the human world, and both focus on two high-concept characters who are on a mission to return a child to normal: Mike and Sulley have to return Boo to the human world, and Joy and Sadness need to make sure they don’t accidentally lobotomize Riley.
Just like Monsters, Inc., there is an almost OCD focus on storage and returning things to where they belong. In Monsters, Inc., that objective correlative is the door: the doors each belong under their own light, each door is held in line until it’s required, and from there it takes a roller coaster ride to the Scare Floor. In Inside Out, it is the memory. Each memory becomes a brightly colored little ball coded for the emotion it evokes: gold for joy, blue for sadness, green for disgust, red for anger, and purple for fear. (The scene at the end, which we’ll come back to, codes a memory as gold and blue; other key memories will be multicolored as well, which I think is a brilliant addition.) The memories are vacuum tubed out of headquarters to “Long Term,” a psychedelic Veterans’ Affairs facility of a place where they sit until someone from Long Term sends them back up to the front. Part of it is the difference in animation between 2001 and 2015, but the memories are on a different level than the doors: glowing spheres in rows are simply more attractive than flat, dull-colored doors. In the world according to Pete Docter, everything has a place; the items which lead us to another place, whether it’s your bedroom or your core memory, come from somewhere. And when they’re done, it goes back in the box.
I think what really makes Inside Out stand apart from Monsters, Inc. is that Inside Out has no equivalent to Randall, much less Mr. Waternoose. Roger Ebert’s review of My Neighbor Totoro, a film that we can guess the Pixar animators admire based on the cameo in Toy Story 3, has no villains. Although the Chinatown joke is made in Inside Out and not in Monsters, Inc., it’s the latter which bears the stronger resemblance. John Huston and Mr. Waternoose both bear similar levels of malice by the end of their stories; Randall (whose origin story is far and away the most interesting part of Monsters University) is just the icing on the cake of a with many layers of villainy. But Inside Out is a little more difficult than that: Inside Out is the version of Monsters, Inc. where the Abominable Snowman is on screen for half the movie. (Bing Bong, Riley’s imaginary friend who is made of cotton candy and is skulking around Long Term until Joy and Sadness find him, reminded me immediately of the Abominable Snowman. You can also tell, as fun as Bing Bong can be, why most of Monsters, Inc. is not spent following the Abominable Snowman’s snowcone business in the Himalayas.)
Monsters, Inc. still works. And villains don’t have to be, forgive me, cartoonish for the film to work. Sid is the villain of Toy Story: even when I was a little kid, I felt like I was getting a moral about not breaking toys more than I was getting insight into some fiendish mind. The Incredibles gains a significant portion of its power from its villain; Syndrome has caused me some serious cognitive dissonance because he puts Bob Parr and Howard Roark on the same team. And yet the parts of WALL-E and Up which work the best are completely devoid of an antagonist. As Roger Ebert notes in that Totoro column, Winnie the Pooh exists in a world without villains as well. (I don’t know what he’s talking about with the weasels: that sounds like the Disney version of The Wind in the Willows to me, but maybe Ebert was better-versed in the Hundred-Acre Wood than I am.)
What a villain adds to a film is urgency, though, and despite the fact that Inside Out is a highly time-sensitive film – much of the plot revolves around Joy and Sadness trying to get back to headquarters in time to stop Riley from running away from home – that urgency is largely missing from Inside Out. Maybe it’s because there’s no chase scene in this movie like there is in virtually every other Pixar movie? (Somewhere, Steve McQueen, rest his soul, is nodding somberly and revving a motorcycle.) Maybe it’s because there’s no villain prodding the action along? Or maybe it’s because there’s simply one hijink too many in the parts of the brain away from headquarters? We drag Sadness through Long Term; we meet Bing Bong and go through Imagination Land; we play in the world of dreams and the Subconscious and a cigar smoker in the back of the theater murmurs a guttural laugh; we end up, inevitably, in the Memory Dump that looks suspiciously like that place in the Axiom with the big WALL-Es. It feels stilted, and I think by then, even the children in the theater with me understood that Joy was the problem and not Sadness. Inside Out didn’t need a villain – a villain would have been a huge mistake – but I needed something to really let me feel like the vastness of the world of Inside Out wasn’t secretly smothering me. Another major emotion in headquarters, maybe? Another character besides Bing Bong hanging around the Islands of Personality? An interaction between Joy and Sadness that didn’t feel like it came straight out of the second season of Parks and Recreation? Or maybe more of Riley’s actual life, where she and not the little chromatic people are the stars?
After a bad Memorial Day, summer itself has been great for international box offices. Jurassic World had the biggest international opening of all time a few weeks ago. Inside Out, for its part, opened $13 million better than Avatar did: that makes Inside Out the best-opening film with an original story ever. The praise for the film has been through the roof as well. I think part of that is it’s only the second original story Pixar has put out there this decade, and the first since 2012’s Brave. Part of the praise, though, has been a really intense focus on how Sadness is the hero of the story, that it’s Sadness that allows us to deal with the changes and stressors we face. And there’s a lot of stress to be faced in the film. Riley, at 11, has to move to San Francisco from Minnesota; it’s never stated explicitly, but we know that it has to do with her father’s work, which is shown to be a little bit dependent on a contract that may not come in. (I don’t know where else to put this, and I’m not usually the guy saying this, but is there any reason this family had to be white?) Joy, who appears to be in charge of Riley’s brain –
Interrupting again, can we talk for a second about how the center chair in her mom’s brain is Sadness and the center chair in her dad’s brain is Anger? Isn’t that fascinating? The Joys in both of those brains are actually out toward the periphery. There’s a serious opportunity for fanfiction here. Carry on.
– doesn’t seem to realize that trying to make Riley happy all the time is not a winning way to help her cope with the strangeness and newness of her life in San Francisco. Sadness’s attempts to take control of the board are met with a sort of incredulous chastisement from Joy, who works on ways to keep Sadness out of Riley’s life altogether. And in the end, yes, it’s Sadness that makes the difference in getting Riley off the bus and home to her parents, where they can finally talk through the issues that have been troubling each of them. Someone else’s article is going to talk about how unique that is to kids’ movies, but it has to be noted here or people will ask me if I actually watched the movie.
The last animated movie to take the box office and the critical press with this level of panache was Frozen, from 2013. (Only a year and a half separates the two films, really.) In Frozen, a pair of young women are forced to address their cordial but broken relationship by remembering that they’re sisters, and that with their parents gone, they are the only family remaining to each other. Inside Out makes Family Island the most important Island of Personality: it is the last island to crumble, the only one that crumbles in small pieces, and the first one to return once Riley and her parents have reunited after her aborted runaway. Given the audience for these films, is it fair to say that animation is starting to recognize Millennial values?
Forget the bad press about Millennials. Are we narcissists because we take pictures of ourselves? Are we wrapped up in our technology and our social media? Are we recklessly idealistic? (A: At least we didn’t pay people to paint portraits of us that are supposed to hang on the walls for decades, it’s not our fault we were born with the Internet, and when the adults have thrown us into environmental catastrophe, 9/11, and the second-worst financial disaster since the Great Depression, a little idealism can’t hurt. But that’s a topic for another day.) If you ask Millennials – and the Pew Research Center has been doing a lot of that in the past five or six years – you’ll find that Millennials value family more than past generations. Millennials are less concerned about being a good spouse than Gen Xers were, but then again, more Millennials grew up without two parents than their Gen X peers. Maybe unsurprisingly, Millennials are extremely concerned about having children and becoming good parents to them. It is a top priority.
The Disney movies that Millennials grew up with are the Disney Renaissance pictures: The Little Mermaid, Beauty and the Beast, Aladdin, The Lion King, The Hunchback of Notre Dame, Mulan. Main characters like Aladdin or Quasimodo or Tarzan are orphans; Ariel and Belle and Pocahontas only have fathers left; Mulan, amazingly, has both; we don’t need to talk about Simba. The focus in those movies is overwhelmingly about love and marriage. We presume that Mulan is going to leave a wildly successful career to marry Shang and have some kids. The Little Mermaid and Beauty and the Beast end with weddings. Aladdin leaves off with the promise of one, as do Tarzan and The Lion King (and, if you leave Quasimodo out of it, so does The Hunchback of Notre Dame). What happens after the marriage is left up to our imaginations/a direct-to-video sequel.
As Millennials get older, though, the Disney/Pixar movies are turning away from “how do we fall in love?” to “how do we raise our kids?” When we talk about Up, what we’re really talking about is the silent movie about Carl and Ellie’s marriage. Lilo & Stitch boils down to a little blue alien in an Elvis suit who says “Ohana means family” about an hour later; it’s easy to forget that a significant chunk of the plot is about an older sister trying to make sure her younger sister doesn’t end up in foster care. The Incredibles is a remarkably mature picture not just because Dash kills a bunch of people, but because it tiptoes so much closer to the topic of divorce than any other animated movie I know of, to say nothing of the fact that family interactions are at the heart of the film. Brave is one of the only Disney/Pixar films ever to talk about the relationship between mothers and daughters. Frozen features sisters rediscovering each other after years of forced separation. Inside Out‘s emotional payoff is a mother and father hugging their daughter.
Look, you’ve seen that before. But the song is literally about Elsa casting off the bad advice that her parents gave her (pretend to be someone you’re not for the rest of your life) and becoming someone more like her own self. Is there a more Millennial concept than that? Don’t we find out at the end of the movie that the act of true love that we all assumed was some heteronormative kiss between Nordics is actually an act of true love between sisters?
The emotional payoff in Inside Out is even more family-centered. Riley, sniffling, tells her parents that the move has been difficult for her for a variety of reasons, and her parents assure her that it’s okay and that they aren’t upset with her in the least. It boils down to that. But it makes people cry, and it’s far more potent than that roll call of major characters at the end of Toy Story 3 that might be the gold standard for Pixar’s emotional napalm. Riley is a reasonably well-developed character, but her parents are not. This is not a flaw in the movie: it is, in fact, one of the film’s great strength. My parents don’t look much like Riley’s, but it’s hard to sit in the theater and not see your own parents talking to you. Everyone is immediately thrown back in time, à la Anton Ego in Ratatouille, to looking into your parents’ eyes and hearing them tell you that they love you and everything is okay.
I sat there, getting pummeled in the feels, thinking about teaching Gatsby and how far away from home I was. New Jersey is a heck of a lot closer to South Carolina than Minnesota is to California, and I had been away from home and made new friends already. But that change is what causes the emotion. When I first looked down from the plane and could practically see my house from there, knowing my dad would be driving by the terminal to give me a hug and take me back to the house where I’d grown up, that memory was golden. But standing there in my classroom, knowing I would be driving myself home over twelve hours after a semester far more difficult than any I’d ever had at school, the memory turned blue. But family was still at the heart of my memory, which is why it kept flashing in front of my eyes while I was watching some computer animated people kneel on the floor and hold each other.
Film makes the viewer as narcissistic as any Millennial. Sitting there in the dark, we are lost in our own perception and our own version for ninety-four minutes, making connections and empathizing twenty-four times a second. In terms of technique or plot, Inside Out is not the equal of Toy Story or Ratatouille or The Incredibles. But more than any of those films, it seems to stand in for something. The ease with which the viewer can relate to the picture makes it one of the most important movies of the decade. It’s the Millennial banner flying over Hollywood, prioritizing the fantasy of family and finding all of us where it hurts.