There are some ideas that are so simple that only a cartoon could tell them well. There are also some ideas that are so brilliant that they have to be told simply, or risk losing their power and impact in a thicket of clever invention. Pixar might have captured the place where these two meet with their latest film, Inside/Out.
The concept is a metaphor, realized in candy colours – our emotions are little people in our head, wrestling for control, striving for balance and the appropriate response as we grow older and the world we live in becomes more confusing. It’s the sort of image that would occur to a child, trying to understand or explain themselves, but realizing it fully, in a landscape that combines amusement park with archive with pit of despair, requires the confidence and imagination that only Pixar seems to combine so effortlessly, ahead of its rivals in the very crowded market of digital animation studios.
It’s the story of Riley, a girl on the verge of adolescence whose previously happy childhood is being drawn to a close when her family moves from the bright, open suburbs of Wisconsin to the shadowy, alley-like streets of San Francisco. Faced with change and new circumstances, the emotions running the control room of her mind – voiced by comic actors Mindy Kaling, Bill Hader, Lewis Black and Phyllis Smith – are overwhelmed, and it’s the job of Joy (Amy Poehler) to try and keep them, and Riley, from falling apart.
In the Rube Goldberg machinery of the mind, memories are small, bright balls that glow vividly when they become cherished core memories – all of which, up until this moment in Riley's life, have been pleasant ones, filled with Joy’s golden glow. This happy state of affairs is threatened when Sadness (Smith) discovers that she can turn those memories a dismal blue with just a touch.
It all sounds trite, but so did Toy Story, reduced to mere words on paper. As it’s always noted whenever Pixar’s phenomenal success is anatomized, the studio’s particular genius – put into play by a stable of writers and directors like Inside/Out’s Pete Docter (Up, Monsters, Inc.) – is telling stories whose emotional appeal pulls in children and adults with the same power, free of condescension or excessive archness.
There might be people out there for whom Pixar films exercise no appeal; they are, ultimately, a marginal segment of the moviegoing market, since the studio’s films are almost uniformly both critical and box office hits. The worst-earning Pixar film (A Bug’s Life) still earned over US$360 million dollars – a bomb most producers would love to have – while its biggest critical dud (Cars 2) still earned more than its prequel (nearly US$560 million.)
I can only imagine how children will enjoy seeing their image of the life of their mind realized onscreen so vividly; I can only speak with authority on how it felt, as the parent of two children poised on the same life threshold as Riley, to sit through one particular scene and manfully try to fight back tears.
In the vast space of Riley’s mind, even a scant dozen years of memories need to be pruned, and so they get culled, night after night, and jettisoned into a dark well where we see them evaporate, one by one, in a tiny puff of ash. On the far side of middle age, this image of memories being dumped and forgotten is a profound and vivid one, but as a parent, there’s something heartbreaking about seeing precious childhood moments, invested with so much emotion and energy, evaporate like puddles on hot pavement.
The killer blow in Docter’s film is delivered by an imaginary friend with a silly name, who sacrifices himself to help Joy regain her place in Riley’s life. Someone without children might find this a bit wistful, even bittersweet, but for a parent just past the mid-point of shepherding children into the world, it claws at the heart like a tight fist.
Like the cherished toys in the Toy Story films, loved and then discarded or passed on to new owners, it’s an image of childhood’s end that a child might intuit, but an adult will recognize with an ache, from the far side of their life. There’s no small irony that the studio that has - perhaps even more than Disney - come to perfect the family film has had its biggest successes telling stories about the briefness of innocence and the relentlessness of time.
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