Inside/Story: Moving On With Pixar

“After all, Pixar’s twenty now; what could happen?”

Those of a certain age will struggle to remember a time before Pixar. For the many whose main source of childhood excitement began with the sight of a curious lamp squashing the letter “I”, the storyline of 2010’s Toy Story 3 concluded, with stunning aplomb, a fifteen-year love story with a studio that has become almost unstoppable. As the kid who owned a group of anthropomorphic toys in 1995, Andy was now preparing to shed his childhood belongings in preparation for his move to college, having aged simultaneously with the audience who had loved the Toy Story movies across the years. It was a great send-up for a studio that was about to hit a three-part quality bomb (Cars 2, Brave, Monsters University); that is, until Pixar announced Toy Story 4, a move that is near-ubiquitously lambasted as a dogshit idea. The narrative of that series is now being stretched to a new, perplexing direction that many are awaiting with bated breath. But regarding the studio as a whole, Pixar itself has arguably culminated its own narrative altogether with their latest, Inside Out, a story about the struggles of aging that intensifies the explorations Toy Story 3 conducted in its emotionally terrorising third act.

The studio’s latest outing follows its many other instances of personified inanimate objects, from toys to monsters, insects and automobiles, robots and sea-life. Now, Pixar have issued their most emotional feature-length assault yet by attributing feelings to feelings themselves, all within the mind of an eleven-year-old girl named Riley. She is the daughter of a family uprooted from Minnesota to San Francisco, forced to leave all that she values from her childhood.

Eleven is a tactful age for Inside Out‘s protagonist. Pixar’s consistently family targeting movies have performed well enough throughout the studio’s two-decade reign to confirm that it has retained relevance since first appealing to the children of the 1990s. As such, their latest has the potential to resonate with an enormous spread of viewers, from those who are currently experiencing the route into adolescence, to those whose teenage years are a recent and (probably) harrowing experience, and to parents who not only remember that stage of their lives themselves, but who are preparing to grapple with their sons and daughters as they enter that most troubling of life phases. Inside Riley’s head lies a control room through which five emotions determine her actions, responding to a screen that projects Riley’s point of view. Before the move to San Francisco, Joy dominates headquarters, with Fear, Disgust, and Anger interjecting whenever appropriate. Only Sadness is predominantly disregarded, until she too begins to involve herself with Riley’s behaviour after the other emotions struggle to guide her through encroaching difficulty. Attempting to maintain overall power, Joy brawls with Sadness until they are both accidentally transported to Riley’s memory banks, leaving the other three emotions (all negative) to steer the girl into her teenage years in a fashion most unpleasant for Riley, and for basically everyone around her.

Cut to twenty years ago, Pixar roared into popular culture with a most ingenious marketing technique: a young boy’s toys come to life behind closed doors. Not only did this provide a delectable fantasy for children of the era, it also afforded the studio ample opportunities for horizontal integration, because the kids who loved the movie would inevitably wish (okay, demand) to own real-life versions of the movie’s toys. Toy Story was a novelty, but a resonant one at that, full of excellent characterisation and storytelling techniques, replete with action and slapstick comedy for children, and witty, intertextual one-liners to ensure the adults were entertained throughout. This would remain the target audience for all future Pixar movies, until Toy Story 3 added the 18-30 age group to its scope by introducing nostalgia to its palette of appeal (tellingly, TS3 is currently the highest-grossing Pixar movie to date). Cars 2 and Monsters University would later attempt a similar feat, but surprisingly, it’s Inside Out – an original concept – that perfects the targeting of an almost universal audience. Not only is this because the studio have proved themselves reliable providers of quality entertainment, but because their latest bears more similarity to the original Toy Story than is initially apparent.

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Looking at the two movies in conjunction obviously reveals how badly Toy Story ’95 has aged; the progression made by the studio itself has eclipsed much of what seemed special about the way this movie looks. Even compared to its 1999 sequel, which had triple the budget, Pixar’s debut flick is seriously rough around the edges; its animation now appears rigid and flawed, its story is alarmingly simple, and it’s the only movie of theirs that concludes not with catharsis, but with a joke. (For those who have somehow forgotten the ending: on Christmas Day, Woody teases Buzz by asking “What could Andy possibly get that is worse than you?”, shortly before they see that their owner’s newest present is a puppy, one not dissimilar to the dreadful beast that terrorised the pair as they were trapped in Sid’s house).

Since then, Pixar have provided some joyous endings (Monsters, Inc., Finding Nemo) and some that are incredibly bittersweet (Up, Toy Story 3), but all, however, have delivered emotions that can be neatly described in words. Inside Out changes that. After trying to subdue Sadness’ impact upon Riley’s feelings, Joy and the rest of the emotions realise that any happy memory will be variably tinged with sadness as one ages, as nostalgia takes hold, or after any impactful experience affects the individual. The resulting effect is familiar, but intangible. Ostensibly, this an inversion of Toy Story‘s message, which taught that moving house can be exciting and adventurous. By the film’s end, however, it’s clear that Inside Out is delivering the same message with considerably more depth, possible only through Pixar’s maturation as stylists and storytellers.

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This becomes evident when attempting to describe each respective movie; the whole plot of Toy Story could be summarised in as many words as it would take to explain Inside Out‘s central premise, and transcribing the opening section of the former would predominantly involve character descriptions (all are established by dialogue). With Inside Out, the laws and mechanics of Riley’s inner workings are presented concisely, and after just five minutes of what is essentially shapes and colour, a visual shorthand is established through which the rest of the movie is told. So while Toy Story constructs a stylish method with which to convey its substance, Inside Out effortlessly crams a whole lot of substance into its style, making the latter entirely subservient until such a time arises for an adventure. (Indeed, it even allows its soundtrack to play over the Disney and Pixar credits, as if Pixar have created a movie they consider above and beyond authorship or brand.) This is not to decry Toy Story, which could never be a bad film in any capacity, and just because it’s essentially a more primitive version of Pixar’s latest doesn’t mean it’s any less successful at exploring its themes. Toy Story was merely an opening; for now at least, Inside Out is a conclusion.

Toy Story explored the issue of childhood relocation by using the toys as surrogates for Andy. The attributions are age-old: Woody, a 1950s-era cowboy, represents the past that Buzz, a futuristic space traveller, attempts to overcome. Both toys reflect aspects of Andy’s maturity process, with Woody recalling the knights-errant of the western genre abiding by their own moral codes (as is the way of childhood), while Buzz (representing adulthood) is formal, organised and, as Woody initially assumes, there to spoil the fun. It’s possible to look at these as alternate versions of Joy and Sadness: Joy dominates Riley’s youth and provides her with boundless happiness, while Sadness (a necessity, it transpires) begins to challenge that position as Riley grows older, representing the difficulties that lay ahead as adulthood nears. In both movies, the two opposing forces must learn to co-exist, especially when the newer characters – Buzz and Sadness – threaten to destroy a comfortable and established order. While the characters of Toy Story embark upon an adventure that metaphorically visualises the trials of the aging process, Inside Out daringly literalises it by animating a young girl’s feelings. Nevertheless, both movies say the same thing: the new is challenging and unpleasant, but once you’ve got to grips with it, it can be magnificent in surprising ways (and the old never really leaves, after all).

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It’s this literalisation, as well as its originality, that make Inside Out more of a fitting end than Toy Story 3. Woody and Buzz’s third adventure is specific to a particular narrative, whereas Riley’s sees Pixar emerging from its own growing pains after a series of sequels and the lackluster, Tangled-lite Brave, indicating that the worst is now behind them. Furthermore, Inside Out plays upon Pixar’s expanded target audience by zoning in on a universal, transitory moment in a highly intelligent fashion, visualising core memories, emotions, memory banks, trains of thought, the subconscious, and all the rest of it. It forces the viewer to recall their own experiences at the threshold of adolescence, automatically inducing a sense of nostalgia, and similarly encouraging the consideration of those experiences within the movie’s logic. And because it’s such a stunning return to form, it forces us to retrace our own experiences with Pixar which, in many cases, involves looking back to the studio’s cinematic origins, twenty years this November.

Then, after it delivers the perfect, indescribable catharsis, out rolls a joke; but unlike with Toy Story, it’s a joke informed not only by the movie’s events, but also by the momentum of its emotional impact. It’s a winking reference to an earlier moment in the film, and it introduces a final theme at the last-minute, one that totally overshadows the movie on a second viewing. In just eight words, Joy suggests that no matter how good things seem, something will inevitably upset the balance; but more importantly, no matter how bad things seem, something will inevitably restore the balance. That Pixar’s earliest ‘core memory’ is the clarinet of Randy Newman’s country-tinged theme song, and their latest is a quip of dialogue proves that the studio is more than just an animation department. It’s the most effective and breathtaking moment of Pixar’s storytelling thus far, combining their now perfected balance of style and substance, sight and sound, and roundly summarising their first twenty years of magic, along with the question: “Anyway… what’s next?”

  • L. G. Ball

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