Watching this film made me think a lot about Pixar in general, so after the no-spoilers review I want share a few thoughts about where Pixar fits into our modern society and movie going culture. But first, the movie.
Inside Out was arguably the most anticipated film for me to watch this year. The premise was one I always wanted to see being explored properly in the medium of film, and here I think they have delivered.
Everyone else has already written their praise for this film, so I'll be brief. What makes this film work is not only a colourful ensemble of character with perfect voice casting, not only the great attention to detail in fleshing out the world of Riley's minds and emotions, not just the clever storyline, not even the creative imageries and effects used. The thing that really worked for me was its message. Without spoiling the film, I can honestly say that they didn't show the most important bits of the film in the teasers, trailers and sneak peeks. You really do have to watch the film start to end to get all that it has to offer.
While there were some aspects of the film that might date it more compared to other works in Pixar's lineup, its brilliance in storytelling will sure to keep the parents even more engaged than the kids. If I really have to nitpick though, this is technically a problem.
The film might be trying to tackle too much for young children who have yet to experience the emotional struggles and questions faced in this film. I would argue even teenagers may not fully appreciate them, as they probably haven't finished dealing with some of the issues highlighted in the emotional journey of Riley in the movie. Some of the other concepts related to the mind like abstract thought are also explored in this film in passing, which may be difficult for even some adults to digest. It is a premise that is very courageous for a big studio to take on, and while I think they did the best they could have, not everyone will enjoy this film on the same level.
There is also a bit of over-simplification of the emotions in most of the characters' minds, as well as the absence of the emotions love and guilt, though you could argue love is a part of joy, and guilt is a part of fear. And given that this film is intended for a general audience and only has a 90 minute run time, it's not a major issue but I thought I'd bring it up anyway.
All in all, I highly recommend this film. It may not be Pixar's best, but it certainly far better than the competition this year (so far). Don't think too hard, and you will experience all your emotions from the inside out!
I honestly don't really have to do much analysis about Inside Out because the whole film is its own thematic analysis: the purpose of emotions (especially sadness), the concept of core memories and how each memory is tied to an emotion. Instead, I left the theatres thinking about Pixar in general, about whether they really deserve the amount of critical acclaim they get, and where they actually fit in the big picture of cinema, because I think there is actually quite a few ideas about the studio's films that needs to be reconsidered.
Inside Out is not the first film of its kind. Some have already noted that it bears similarity to the TV Show Herman's Head. There are also a handful of recent films that explore the mind/the power of emotions, such as Inception, Equilibrium, and, God forbid, Sharkboy and Lavagirl. They weren't the same as Pixar's take, but certainly shared some methods such as the use of anthropomorphism and architecture to create an accessible representation of abstract, intangible ideas.
But just because a film isn't unique in terms of the premise, doesn't mean it isn't original, and certainly doesn't mean it cannot be remade. We need films that explore these ideas a few times because in the form of film, there is only so much you can cram into a couple of hours without losing your audience. Musicians often compose pieces that are variations of other people's themes for the same reason. They know there is still untouched potential within an established theme, and they have the skills to reinvent it with a different instrument or for a different/bigger audience.
Pixar does this sort of exploration exceptionally well by Hollywood standards. They did it with toys. They did it with fish. They even did it successfully with superheroes, so there is no question that if anyone is to remake a film based on an established theme for kids, it's Pixar.
The problem however with making standalone films of this type, whether they are truly original or just a refreshing new take on a previous topic, is that they are less profitable, which is why most studios seldom greenlight such projects. When Pixar became a part of Disney, it was inevitable they had to make that sequel for Cars due to its success in merchandise sales. Studios are largely profit-driven, and research has consistently shown that moviegoers will always favour watching films whose premise or characters they have heard of before, even if it has been done to death or is expected to suck on some level.
The recent box office numbers between Jurassic World versus Inside Out is an exemplar of this problem. Even from day one most critics already indicated the Jurassic sequel wasn't that great, yet the film went on to make history for being the fastest film to hit a billion dollar in ticket sales, knocking Avatar out of the ballpark. Inside Out on the other hand has been universally praised, yet it has only achieved about half the sales numbers in the US after two weekends.
This is why original ideas appear to be rare. Studios only give big budget to film projects if they have some security of recouping their money, and remakes, reboots and franchise films tend to be more secure as people WILL go watch it, even if in their heart they have little expectations. And because theatres only order films that they think people will watch, independent/arthouse films will be marketed, and seldom get a wide release.
This is why I do have great respect for Pixar for taking risks frequently despite being a big studio, even after being acquired by the biggest entertainment group in the world. Sure they have their Cars 2 and Monsters 2, but they have pursued more standalone, 'original' films than they have franchises, and that's what makes their entire existence unique in the land of risk-aversion.
One of the other common things I hear about Pixar is that they also take risk in their characters, and that they tend to have a more diversity in their characters and roles. While Pixar films don't have anything racist or sexist or anything offensive to religions and people's sexual orientation, I don't think they always help break stereotypes.
To support this thinking, let's quickly go over a couple of past Pixar films: Ratatouille and Monster University.
Ratatouille is a bit unfortunate since it takes place in Paris and is about the love for cooking, so the accents and cultural depictions of French people in this film is somewhat merited. However, other than Remy and Linguini, the overall portrayal of everything in this film is Hollywood's version of France rather than actual France. I mean it's not done in an offensive manner, but it does feel like a bit of oversaturation. Also, the fact that this story takes place in France, but none of the main characters is voiced by a French actor; a bit disappointing. At least in Up when they starred an Asian character, they actually got an Asian kid to voice it.
Monster University is a bit more problematic. Firstly, it is a school film. If you ignore the fact that all the characters are monsters, every character, behaviour and situation in this film are cliches that were done to death even in the 90s: the jocks, the nerds, the fraternities, the intolerable roommates etc. Secondly, it reinforces the idea that most people will remain in their stereotype, and only a select few (i.e. the main protagonists) have the capacity to change or be better than where they started. At the end of the movie, the jocks were still jerks, and the way the university/fraternities were run has not changed. This teaches kids that people who break stereotypes are not common, and so it is okay to keep using those stereotypes to understand and interact with most people around them.
Not all Pixar films lean on stereotypes like this though. Finding Nemo for one not only addresses an oft ignored topic (challenges of a single parent raising a child with disability), but does so while also challenging the viewers' perception of other stereotypes (e.g. the 'vegetarian' sharks, the pelican that befriends the aquarium squad etc). The Incredibles is even better as it portrays a 'conventional' family in middle class suburbia as a disguise to hide their super identities. So yes, some Pixar films do break the stereotype on purpose or incidentally.
Unfortunately, Inside Out falls in the former category, the mind of the father and mother is quite stereotypical, which you see in the trailers. The father watches football, and his primary emotion is anger, while the mother's primary emotion is sadness. This sort of emotional stereotyping was especially pronounced at the end of the film when we get a quick look in the minds of every other character in the film, like the pizza girl, the teacher and 'cool' girl in Riley's new classroom and the clown. I guess it was funny because we could quickly make the association between their appearance/job and their emotion personalities, but that just consolidates those synapses in our brains that this association is the default and okay to keep.
Stereotypes are there because they are to some degree statistical truths. However the only way we can progress beyond them is to stop participating in systemic prejudice that fuels the perception. Perhaps that was never in Pixar's mission to deal with stereotyping, but they are in a prime position to break the cycle. It would be nice to see them do more unconventional characters like they did in Brave, Finding Nemo and Up, rather than more of things like Cars or Monsters. But overall, they're about the same than their competitors in terms of creating unconventional characters. Somethings they do it, other sometimes they don't care.
One last thing. Watching this film made me realise that Pixar, while they purport to be making films that are aimed for both children and parents, actually attract young parents and young adults the most. Having the films be child-friendly simply increases ticket sales, since these young parents would want their kids to watch these films as they deem them healthier brain food than available alternatives.
Pixar films aren't children movies for a new generation. They are what we wish we had more of back in the day, when we ourselves were children. Those of us who are now in our early adulthood (say, 21-35) had the plethora of musical and animation masterpieces of Disney that were memorable, but in general, they are not that intellectually or emotionally challenging, even by Hollywood standards. They gave us good memories and songs to sing with friends at karaoke, but they neither challenged us emotionally, intellectually or spiritually.
There were a few exceptions to the rule of course. The animation producer who did it more seriously back when I was a kid was Don Bluth, which I would argue made films as original and masterful back then as Pixar movies are today. His films included The Secret of NIMH and All Dogs Go To Heaven. In a way, Don Bluth represented the Pixar of the 1980s/early 90s. However, I honestly didn't recall these films as that special or amazing until I rewatched them at an older age. As an adult and I gained a retroactive appreciation and love for them. Dreamworks had the same problem. Though they weren't on par with Don Bluth, films such as The Prince of Egypt and Spirit: Stallion of the Cimarron are wonderful films that again, parents enjoyed more than the kids for various reasons.
Inside Out is again an exemplar of this. The film explores the issue of valuing and accepting our emotions, and the importance of each plays to guide our steps in life. These are all introspection exercises, and are arguably problems more relevant to children from my generation (1980-95). I am part of the generation that grew up in peace time, in middle class suburbia, in a smaller but fairly mobile family unit kind of like Riley in this film.
Those who grew up in wartime (40s-70s) as well as those who grew up in the Internet/Information age (late 90s-2000s) would have different childhood challenges; wartime children focused on survival and family, while kids today are facing a crisis of identity and purpose (given the various human rights movements/civil wars, the global economic problems and the excess of technology).
Both of these are different facets of our existence just as emotions are, but their weights differ depending on the society we are brought up in. Inside Out is relevant to me based on my own childhood, but I cannot say it will be relevant to today's kids.
Moreover, I never actually experienced or gained insights about my own emotions while I was still a kid or a teenager; I had feelings, but I never psychoanalysed them. It isn't until much, much later in life, and only through a retrospective view of my own childhood that I gained that deeper understanding and appreciation of those life experiences, and learning how to value them through different emotional lenses.
What I'm saying is that, if I watched Inside Out as a kid back in 1995, I would have loved the colours, the humour and maybe even the characters, but I would not have valued the deeper creativity and more introspective aspects of this film. It's kind of like how we all remember the songs from The Lion King, but if I tell you that the story is actually an adaptation of the Shakespearean play Hamlet, you start to think about the film in a deeper way and notice the parallels it has to the source literature. You are not just going through the motions when feigning the ability to sing that opening sunrise song.
Perhaps this is the brilliance of Pixar. Many of their more works are a reminder to us who are now grown up, even parents to a young family, who have children that are now at the age of watching new Disney films and getting caught up in all its sugar-coated happiness, but not learning to properly digest more wholesome movies Pixar and Dreamworks offer.
As much as people loved Frozen, it doesn't have a strong rewatch value or share a particularly deep message. You get everything out of the film on the first pass as a kid, and in fact when you watch it again as an adult you start to question the character's behaviour and the logic of their world. Pixar's films are much more impressionable and beneficial to us as adults who know of its nutritional value. So in a weird way, Pixar is the broccoli of the kids' film world. And I do love broccoli.
So yeah, while they're not exactly a Jesus of the film industry with a flawless track record, Pixar is still awesome. I think they still fulfil a very interesting function in our modern society that we need to keep supporting. Not every work of theirs will be a masterpiece, but until they stop trying their best, I will give every one of their projects a chance.