Pete Docter’s new film for Disney and Pixar, Inside Out, is a veritable wonder to behold. In its attempt to visually encapsulate the aesthetic mindscape of its fourteen-year-old protagonist, who struggles against an existential melt down and its attendant crisis of personal identity (brought on by a move from small-town Minnesota to the liberally, metropolitan San Francisco), Inside Out succeeds on a seemingly impossible scale. Where other less capable directors of family fare might drown in the apparent preposterous ennui of the film’s stated premise and pretentious, thematic intentions, Docter (alongside co-director Ronaldo Del Carmen) has carved out a path into the mind of every one of us in his fourteen-year-old muse that proves universally felt.
The sheer immediacy of Docter’s imaginatively conceived world in Inside Out is a marvel to behold, the world-building on display literally unheard of in terms of its creativity and coherent, intuitive nature (save for Docter’s 2001 breakout hit, Monsters Inc.), the utility on display in its design schematically pleasing and cogent. In Inside Out, Docter has perhaps produced the best feature film of the entire year, and has certainly outdone himself in terms of intelligence behind the scenes at Pixar, taking his rightful place at the head of the pack of Disney’s animation studio powerhouse.
And yet, there is something too clever in terms of the essentially thematic, rhetorical flourishes in the construction of Inside Out that proves too large a barrier to intellectually surpass for some moviegoers, specifically the children for whom the film was supposedly made, and largely marketed towards. Undoubtedly (if you are of the leftward leaning, socio-political persuasion), one of the first sources from whom you’d have heard Docter’s well deserved praises sung would be from such liberal media outlets as NPR and IndieWire, whose attendant damnation or praise of any independent intellectual property within the realm of entertainment spells out that film’s relevance within the realm of the cultural elite. What you might not have heard from such sources, however, is how Inside Out plays to its actual, real world audiences (predominantly consisting of children), who are at times perplexed by the film’s layers of emotional complexity, gestalt, and nostalgic ennui. Docter has pitched his film towards a young audience, but due to both his socio-economic status and attendant academic level of personal intelligence, Inside Out feels, at times, more geared towards tugging at the parents’ heart strings, as opposed to the children who begged to be taken to the theatre in the first place.
Of particular significance in terms of construction of the film’s basic narrative set-up, Inside Out features a particularly compelling sub-plot surrounding the imaginary friend to the film’s central protagonist. Bing Bong (voiced by Curb Your Enthusiasm and Scrubs character actor, Richard Kind) is a wildly imaginative, deeply sentimental, and tragically heart-felt send-up to the innocence of youth, and its attendant excesses of imagination. In the film, Bing Bong is in constant danger of being forgotten by the film’s protagonist forever, his central significance as a creative security blanket long since replaced by actual friendships in the real world, making his relevance within the film’s overarching narrative tenuous at best, though conveniently suffered due to Inside Out’s thematic precociousness. When Bing Bong finally accepts his fading significance within the realm of memory, the film’s impeccable penchant for wild flights of fantasy and imaginative virility terminate the character in a sequence that is heartbreakingly sincere, treating Bing Bong as the tragic hero that Docter’s film so wants him to be.
But is Bing Bong’s final fall from significance truly all that heartbreaking? Who cares more, the Riley character that dreamt Bing Bong up, or the audience to whom Docter has subjectively imagined his film objectively speaking? And just who is that imagined audience? It can’t be solely consistent of children, as the levels of maturity and self-reflection on display in the film’s script belie Docter’s longstanding penchant for crafting film narratives that resonate first and foremost for himself, the children to whom he is playing the part of storyteller more often than not an afterthought in terms of his creative process. Yes, Bing Bong’s demise is tragic, but only for those audience member’s long past the age of Riley’s respective naïveté, the film’s claustrophobic ennui suffocating for the children without the life experience from which to navigate the film’s densely layered sentimentality and subtly applied levels of emotional manipulation.
While it’s hard to find fault in Inside Out’s impeccable sense of craftsmanship, or in its sense for novelty in narrative storytelling for children, the drama that plays out is more often than not far more resonant for adults, whose learned understanding of such overtly intellectual concepts as abstract thought and four dimensional space (both of which are marvelously represented in the film’s vibrant animation scheme, and careful delineation between its supported and imagined landscapes) are more in keeping with the film’s overreaching engagement with a more mature understanding of the emotions otherwise fictively explored.
While Joy, Sadness, Anger, Fear, and Disgust are appropriately fuzzy caricatures (fundamentally designed to be plush toys to keep children company at night), their inherent intelligence and sardonic wit can only be matched by the adults playing into their projected conceit. What’s more, their voices, lent by such immense comic talents as Lewis Black, Bill Hader, and Mindy Kaling, are amusing largely via an association with their more adult, aural connotations and associations. While I’m sure some kids might recognize Lewis Black’s inchoate rage from overhearing The Daily Show from bed, and some older children may have seen Mindy Kaling on an episode or two of NBC’s The Office, it’s exceedingly unlikely that they would be apply to apply those real life faces onto the animated characters depicted in Docter’s film, much less understand why they are there in the first place.
In crafting such an intricately layered parable on human emotion and feeling, Pete Docter’s Inside Out is more often than not an exercise in attraction with a high learning curve, shutting out many of the younger audience members that the film was pitched towards entertaining in the first place (in addition to a few of its more jaded, adult audience members). While Docter’s previous two films (Monsters Inc. and Up) are similar in terms of their own engagement with mature themes and sentimental tones, their supported narratives are a bit more lightly applied in contrast, both films wherein genre storytelling comes into play more often, introducing a way into the two films’ underlying adult maturities and thematic nuances for their younger target audiences.
While the world-building on display in Inside Out is just as magnificently achieved as anything that has come before from Disney and Pixar, Docter has seemingly become a little too self-involved this time around (a la Brad Bird with Ratatouille), his newest feature a marvel in terms of animated storytelling that ironically offers little in the way of engaging with the rudimentary inner workings of the mind of a child. Bing Bong is a marvelous character whose tragic end is heartfelt, but the pang felt for him is largely projected onto the film’s narrative landscape by those who have already said goodbye to such innocent pretensions, and have embraced an adult maturity that Inside Out caters to with perhaps a little too much exclusivity.
But is this, in fact, a problem for Pete Docter and Inside Out? Certainly much of the comic relief and chief enjoyment to be taken from the film resides in its ability to exercise the mind, allowing the viewer to free associate with their own emotions and feelings, and to project their own inner battles onto the screen against Docter’s depicted crisis of personal character and emotional identity. While some younger audience members may feel a little dizzy at times, their own subjective attachment to the emotions personified on screen in varying stages of development and abstract detachment from the feelings which the personified characters on screen objectively inhabit, perhaps one’s individual experience with the film may change over time, with all of the subtlety apparent in any Pixar film shaded in by the dawning light of adult understanding. Perhaps, ultimately and finally, the emotional maturity promised in Inside Out’s fantastically realized map of the mind will be made apparent to adult and child alike in due time, regardless of whether or not Bing Bong is required to get you there.