Chris Landreth:Pixar “What If”

—Chris Landreth

Over its 30+ years of existence, Pixar Animation Studios has been at its most brilliant when it’s posed the question “What if?”  As in, “What if toys had a secret life?”, or “What if rats could cook?”, or “What if monsters really do hide in young kids’ closets at night?”    No Hollywood animation studio toyed with the premise of “What if?” with such audacity as Pixar, as it did in the TOY STORY series, RATATOUILLE and MONSTERS, INC.    That audacity seemed to run out 4 years ago, as Pixar coasted on a tepid prequel (MONSTERS UNIVERSITY), an even lamer sequel (CARS 2) and a half-baked attempt at a fairy tale (BRAVE).   But “What if?” has been joyfully revived in Pixar’s latest film, the stellar INSIDE OUT, directed by Pete Docter (UP, MONSTERS, INC.) with this exquisite premise:  “What if the emotions in your head were characters, with… emotions?”

INSIDE OUT’s story has two concurrent parts, one conventional, and one most unusual.  The conventional part is quite thin:  11-year-old Riley is uprooted from her idyllic home in Minnesota, and moves to San Francisco with her yuppie parents.  She has a hard time adjusting to her new urban environment.  She falls into a funk; her happy, goofy, childlike outlook on life is replaced by darkness, anger, sadness.  She thinks of running away from her new home, back to Minnesota.  Will she do it?  103132.79068003_1000X1000

For a studio that’s gone into an epic dystopic future world (WALL-E), into an Amazon rainforest on a balloon-suspended house (UP) and through spectacular underwater Pacific seascapes (FINDING NEMO), Riley’s dilemma is pretty small stuff.  Maybe she’ll run away, maybe she won’t.  Most families with kids 10 years old or older have experienced the scenario of an unhappy kid wanting to run away.  Fortunately, for the most part, this unhappy drama tends to be resolved peacefully, more frequently than not.   And it’s not too much of a spoiler to say that it does for Riley in INSIDE OUT.

But the meat of INSIDE OUT’s story, the surreal part, takes place inside Riley’s head.  In this inner, unknowable part of her mind, Pete Docter and his writers take INSIDE OUT into a new place entirely.   We see Riley’s waking world through her mind’s Headquarters, guided by five characters who represent her primary emotions:  Joy, Sadness, Anger, Fear and Disgust.  Because Riley has been a happy kid for most of her life, Joy is the leader of this group.  She is sprightly, nimble, agile, vivacious, and, well…happy.  The other emotions defer to her as she guides Riley through her joy-filled childhood.  Much of these characters’ work is to manage millions of bowling-ball orbs which constitute all of Riley’s memories.  These memory orbs are neatly colour-coded:  happy memories are golden, sad memories are blue, disgusting memories green, angry memories red and fearful memories purple.   Most of Riley’s memory orbs are golden.

But when Riley moves to San Francisco, the ensuing upheaval upsets the balance in Headquarters.  Suddenly another emotion, namely Sadness, begins to contaminate Riley’s waking life.  The character Sadness is dumpy, clumsy, slow, and constantly apologetic and, you guessed it…sad.  This upheaval causes Riley’s happy “Core Memories” to be contaminated.  Sadness bumbles onto these orbs and when she touches them, they turn from gold to blue.  Joy becomes more befuddled as she loses control of Riley’s head, and in a moment of misjudgement, she and Sadness are ejected from Headquarters, and fall head over heels into the expanse of Riley’s brain, far away from their orderly, neat, compact command bridge.  And here, in this sprawling, contorted, cavernous, monstrous, overwhelmingly gigantic landscape of Riley’s brain, INSIDE OUT becomes epic.

Cut off from Riley’s conscious life, Joy and Sadness are lost in the uncharted expanse of Riley’s memories.  The remaining emotions in Riley’s Headquarters–Anger, Fear and Disgust, are left to manage her emotional responses to her world.  And as you would guess, Riley becomes angry, afraid and contemptuous.  She talks back to her parents.  She becomes embarrassed in her new school.  She fumes quietly in her room.  Meanwhile, Joy and Sadness watch helplessly as the landmarks in Riley’s brain implode–huge islands representing Riley’s honesty, carefree goofiness, and love of her family–collapse and fall into a gaping chasm, a black hole of forgetting.   In Riley’s brain, forgetting is the ultimate death–of her faded memories, of discarded emotions, and of her imaginary friend, a goofy pink elephant-cat creature named Bing Bong, who walks aimlessly through Riley’s long-term memory vault.

Bing Bong is earnest and well-meaning but hopelessly naive.  He wants to help Joy and Sadness, who are desperate to return to Headquarters, but instead leads them into a near-fatal shortcut, the realm of Abstract Thought.   In this windswept area, characters are deconstructed into cubist forms, then purely geometric shapes, and nearly reduced to non-representational curves and squiggles before emerging back into the more familiar realm of concrete, cognitive awareness.  This scene is definitely not Disney material.  It will fly over the heads of most kids under the age of 35. But it is this scene in INSIDE OUT that I believe will stand years from today, as representing the most daring, most adult and funniest thing that Pixar has ever created to date.

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But then we see Riley, and know that time is running out for her.  Will Joy and Sadness make it back in time?  These are the real stakes in INSIDE OUT.  Riley may be contemplating leaving her home, but the real consequence of her turmoil is that she faces the loss of the two emotional forces that make her life worth living:  uninhibited Happiness, and quiet, reflecting and contemplative Sadness.  INSIDE OUT makes the case that our emotional balance depends on Sadness and Joy coexisting within all of us, to guide us in harmony.  I’ve never seen a story do this so beautifully, with such–joy and sadness.  This film will choke you up.

In many ways INSIDE OUT is a very small movie.  Riley’s stakes are not particularly high.  There is no treacherous villain who threatens her or her family.  She is not required to do anything heroic.  She does not have to “believe in herself”, or to overcome any concrete obstacle.  She simply grows, adjusts and matures before our eyes.  As a story, this growth is completely mundane, something that all of us have to do as we live our lives.  INSIDE OUT’s brilliance is that as we see the struggles of a person’s emotions such as those of Riley, we end up asking ourselves:  “What if this mundane growth is in fact part of something glorious?” No higher compliment can be given to any story, in a film or otherwise, that people share.