Pete Docter | 95 mins | Blu-ray | 1.78:1 | USA / English | U / PG
Pixar haven’t had the greatest start to the second decade of the 21st Century. After somehow managing to get lightning to strike thrice with Toy Story 3, they released two mediocre sequels (Cars 2 and Monsters University), and their only original film of the period, Brave, endured a mixed-to-poor reception also (I’ve still not got round to seeing it). This might go some way towards explaining why their release for this year has attracted such acclaim, despite it offering a pretty rote storyline dressed up in some fancy ‘original idea’ clothing (not that it is a truly original idea) and a modicum of genuine emotional resonance.
You see, this is the story of Riley (Kaitlyn Dias), an 11-year-old kid who moves from her small home town to San Francisco and struggles to cope. That’s because the anthropomorphised emotions who live in her head and control her moods and memories are thrown for six, especially when de facto leader Joy (Amy Poehler) and the accidentally-ruinous Sadness (Phyllis Smith) get sucked out of the control room and in to the depths of Riley’s memory, from where they have to find their way back in time to sort everything out. Fancy idea: anthropomorphised emotions. Rote storyline: mismatched pair get lost, have to find way back in time to fix things. Genuine emotional resonance: once-happy 11-year-old kid rendered miserable and struggling to find her place.
It surprises me not a jot that a Pixar film has been over-praised by critics and initial viewers. That’s pretty much my view of the their last couple of efforts before the recent doldrums, too. Those were, specifically, WALL-E and Up, both of which feature incredible, innovative, boundary-pushing openings followed by rote, familiar, genre-bound second halves. They’re both good films, but the five-star bits are contained within the first 10 to 30 minutes, followed by three- or four-star entertainments for the rest of the running time. Inside Out isn’t quite the same, because the super-high-quality bits aren’t concentrated anywhere. Instead they’re sprinkled here and there, moments of cleverness (though not genius — as I said, the concepts aren’t exactly original) hung on an easy, well-worn formula.
You don’t have to dig very deep into the Blu-ray’s special features to get an idea of how this happened. The story went through many, many, many iterations over the years and years it was in development. No wonder they wound up beating it into such a familiar shape as the quest narrative. It may also explain why some events don’t quite seem explained. I could’ve missed something, of course, but I was wondering why they were demolishing stuff in Riley’s Imagination Land until a deleted scene (culled from a very different take on the story) explained it. Many of the characters are just built from archetypes, too, like a sports-minded dad who doesn’t actually listen to mom — never seen that anywhere before!
It certainly isn’t as clever or meaningful as some people have tried to make it out to be. For example, a whole internet discussion was sparked by the fact that Riley (an 11-year-old girl, remember) has emotions that are personified as a mix of male and female. When we get a glimpse inside other characters’ heads, their emotions are all of a single gender. ‘What is this saying?’, the internet wonders. Is it to do with the fact that all gender is fluid? That gender is fluid pre-puberty? As Riley is the only one with these mixed genders, are we meant to infer she’s transgender? Fertile ground for discussion. In fact, the answers are: no, no, and no. Director Pete Docter has said he just felt some emotions were more masculine (Anger in particular) and so that’s why they’re male in Riley’s head. Why the single genders in other characters? Shorthand. We only meet them briefly, after all.
Of course, now we’re touching on the issue of the relevance of authorial intent versus consumers’ reading of the final work, which isn’t a discussion I have much interest in engaging with right now. Suffice to say, whatever anyone’s readings of gender issues in Inside Out, none were intended by the filmmakers, and so you’re projecting something on to it rather than being able to unearth a coherent statement.
In other matters, there are some nice jokes and nods aimed squarely at adult viewers, the best being a passing reference to a ’70s noir. (Yes, really. Don’t worry, you’ll spot it.) Meanwhile, the animation and design is fine. I feel that’s the best I can say about it, other than that the loose, floating, ‘bubbly’ edges of the emotion characters are quite neat. Apparently the effect was originally meant only for Joy and was immensely difficult to animate, but just as it was to be scrapped John Lasseter commented on how great it was and asked for it to be added to all the characters. Well done Mr Lasseter, though apparently it was an absolute headache for the technical team.
I do wonder if it’s just because this is the first really good original Pixar film for quite a long time (six years and five films on from Up, to be precise) that it’s gone down so well. It is good — there are some neat ideas and a strong moral lesson (even if, as with everything else, it’s not a totally original one; though from the way it’s discussed in some circles (not least the film’s own special features), you’d think it was a philosophical revelation of Nobel-winning proportions). In some respects, these qualities makes it almost a return to Pixar’s early praise-magnet form, which is enough for some to go wild for it. For me, the style and shape of the story those elements are airlifted into is so familiar that there’s little room for surprise (one highly emotional moment excepted). Maybe clearer heads will eventually prevail and people will rein it in a little.
Inside Out is released on DVD and Blu-ray in the UK tomorrow.