Monday, 20 July 2015

Real Emotional Girl – Inside Out’s Examination of Emotional Intelligence

director: Pete Docter; screenplay: Pete Docter, Meg LeFauve, Josh Cooley
starring: Amy Poehler, Phyllis Smith, Richard Kind, Bill Hader, Lewis Black, Mindy Kaling

There is a scene in the recent Inside Out which sees a trio of characters entering danger zone called ‘Abstract Thought’. “You should never go in there,” one of them cautions, “No one understands it.” For adults, it’s an amusing bit of dialogue on-the-nose dialogue; for children, the dialogue is secondary to the visually humorous way the scene unfolds. The moment becomes a key to the film, though, because abstract thought is complex and difficult to understand. That is why Inside Out (the15th feature length film from Pixar, America’s most acclaimed animated studio of the moment) ends up being marvel even before it’s gone very far. For, the characters I mention in the opening are not people but feelings. The film itself is a metaphor which depends on abstract thought.

Inside Out follows the emotions of an eleven year old girl, Riley, where those emotions are sentient beings trying to navigate the usual occurrences of childhood but put under recent pressure. In the human world Riley has moved move from her home in Michigan, to San Francisco with her parents. Moving is such an excellent choice for the film’s ‘crisis’ because it’s a universal harbinger which anyone of any age can identify with but one which a child might find especially discomfiting. Moving signals change. And emotions constantly change, and the film’s extended metaphor depends on that.

There are five emotions which anchor her, Fear, Disgust, Sadness, Anger and the irrepressibly bossy Joy who tries to keep Riley’s life full of happiness. The move becomes too much for the emotions to bear when the odd emotion out, Sadness, begins compromising Riley’s memories. When sadness touches them, key core memories move from joyful memories to ones tinged with sadness. Things hit critical mass when, in trying to prevent Sadness’ domination Joy, along with Sadness and some key memories get expelled from Riley’s conscious brain and the battle begins to return Riley’s emotions to a state of normalcy. Sounds cerebral for an animated film ostensibly for children? Certainly. That’s the film’s strength.

Inside Out has herculean ambitions navigating a film where the characters are concepts (an anthropomorphic animal is one thing, but an anthropomorphic 'feeling' in theory seems difficult to execute) that works for children and adults. It’s an unusual hook, that works. The complex idea of sentient emotions is easily manifested by excellent animation and more than capable voice work. Each emotion has a different colour which the feel teaches the audience to be aware so that significant dramatic potential is rung from knowing that when a memory turns Blue (Sadness’ colour) there is something amiss in the world. It’s a deftness of using animation pragmatically and aesthetically that makes me suspect Inside Out would benefit from multiple watches.

I’ve not always fallen for Pixar’s animation offerings particularly those of Pete Docter (his much ballyhooed Up has never really clicked into place for me). However, Inside Out’s didactic message (and, really, underneath it all Pixar films can’t hide their stripes – in their underlying quest to be ‘children’s films’ they have a yearning desire to teach) is a profound and charming one one, as much pertinent to children as it is to adults. Dare I say more so to adults? Its thesis concept is so rooted in the philosophical a child might miss its more complex ideas but the idea of sharing the information with children even if they don’t quite understand is a welcome thought, and for the adults with children (or those without who realise that there’s not creepy about sitting in a cinema to see an animated film), Inside Out offers an excellent contemplation on emotional intelligence. And I suspect where it manages to come off better from me that Docter's previous Pixar work is that it is emphatically without a "villain". Instead, by navigating in a surreal environment Inside Out does not try to make things more palatable by playing heroes vs villains, but has a sincere interest in examining (most of) its characters.

The film smartly portrays emotions as inherently positive (emotional vs logical, nine times out of ten it’s the latter that’s more trumpeted). More impressive is the fact that its ultimate thesis is that despite Joy’s aggressive thrust, Sadness is not only unavoidable but essential to human existence is a profound one. Human nature has dictated, especially in local culture, that there are few things as embarrassing and offensive as sadness (in a particularly moving scene, Riley is angered and disgusted that she begins crying at school). We do not like talking about sadness, we do not like acknowledging it. Inside Out the film adopts a deftly subtle conceit by having Sadness voiced in a deliberately glum tone by Phyllis Smith. The tone is a shroud for piercing voice work and a piercing intent. For the film, like any metaphor, exists on two levels. There is the more obvious warm, family friendly film about a girl adjusting to life but there is also the cerebral and almost existentialist rumination on the way that our emotions (and memories, and subconscious) are so unpredictable and fragile. It is a heavy concept for a ‘children’s film’, but the animated films do not essentially mean for children and even if you disagree there – what a delightful thing for a child to be introduced to concepts like the value of Sadness and emotions in this way.

I do have minor reservations to voice, for example the film opts for expediency to some degree its array of emotions seems limited. Joy, sadness, anger, fear and disgust seems like a fair variety but what of worry, nervousness or confusion? Emotions you might consider essential for an eleven year old,. Even with only five emotions to traverse, too, Disgust ends up getting the short end of the stick being relegated to an ancillary player (albeit an amusing one voiced by Mindy Kaling). The particular criticism seems churlish because it’s wrapped up in the attribute of the film that it does what it does so excellently (and sincerely) it’s a shame it was not working with a larger tableau. There are other questions like what it means that Riley’s emotions are a mix of masculine and feminine “thoughts” while her parents have gendered emotions is either a confusing blob on the film’s part or a perceptive observation of how as we grow older our emotions become conditioned by society to be the right one. Am I reading much into this? Of course, but Inside Out encourages instead of stymies such over emphatic consideration

Inside Out represents a critical entry in Pixar’s quest to make us forget the qualifier when we see an animated film. It’s not “good for an animated film”. It is, simply, good by any standards. Entire films rarely come as tightly constructed, and generous in emotions as this one. Inside Out does not buckle under its great ambitions but instead unfolds humorously, sincerely, warmly and thoughtfully.


Stray Thoughts:
  • I kept wondering why Joy's hair was blue through too much of this one. Any guesses?
  • And, as lovely as Inside Out I feel we're forgetting the first film to look inside the human body though animation.
  • Poehler is so great channeling Leslie Knope here but how great would it have been to make this an entire Parks and Recreation crossover? Jerry for Sadness, April for Disgust, Ron for Anger, Tom for Fear?

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