All Pixar movies are comedies of exile. Invariably, we are introduced to a place of equilibrium, an ordered system which is thrown into chaos when several of its members are expelled or ejected. Their return journey is a learning experience for both the exiled, who must develop skills beyond the routines learned inside the ordered system, and those left behind, who must cope with loss, failure, and who must help to reconstruct the system in a new and better image. Our protagonists may be ejected from home, family, society, or their place of employment, but the structure of exile-and-return-with-new-wisdom is pretty rigid. Some examples? The toys of Toy Story must find their way back to Andy’s room and deal with their fears of abandonment; Nemo must be found, and his father must overcome his own overprotective fears of losing his son again; Mike and Sully, monsters cast out of their positions at Monsters, Inc. must find a way back to the company and re-engineer it as a more benign and productive institution; the vetoed superheroes of The Incredibles must win back their places as protectors of society; Wall-E, a robot left on perpetual clean-up duty after being abandoned on Earth must assimilate new emotions into his programmed routines and return to renew life on the planet …. And so it continues, all the way up to Inside Out, where the subjects in exile are anthropomorphized emotions, Joy (Amy Poehler) and Sadness (Phyllis Smith), who must restore balance in an adolescent girl’s personality and adjust their own procedures to learn from what they discover on the way.
I’ve often thought that Pixar movies work like workplace comedies, where the jokes arise from clashes of different personalities brushing up against one another as they work towards a common goal or ideal. Monsters, Inc. is the most pronounced vision of this: Mike and Sully are model workers who accidentally uncover corruption at the top of their organization and end up radically reshaping it into something better – kinder, more productive. Much of the film’s humor comes from the reversal of roles, seeing the monsters as wage-slaves and weekend warriors whose worst workplace hazards are jumpy toddlers. Similarly, imagining the world of marine life as a mirror of the human everyday, with traffic and school-runs to contend with, is the basis of Finding Nemo’s world-building efforts, and The Incredibles is built around the conceit of superheroes reduced to the same employment status as the rest of us losers. Cars and Toy Story are both told from the perspective of human-made objects in parallel worlds where they have lives of their own: the fun comes from imagining car/toy equivalents from the real world. Inside Out is the apotheosis of this idea beyond a plot device towards the entirety of the setting: exploring the various parts of Riley’s inner life gives the film its quest narrative, its developmental stages, its metaphorical value, its very reason for being.
Pixar sometimes likes to visualize these ordered systems as perfect labyrinths of information our heroes must navigate and draw upon: the vast hall of doors to children’s bedrooms in Monsters, Inc. is a great example, and Inside Out takes this even further with its depictions of Riley’s memories as library stacks of a million memories, micro-managed by teams of blue-collar blu-things that tidy them up and clean out the useless stuff.
Of course, computers are very good at generating shots like these, where millions of copies of something extend towards a vanishing point. If there are recurring anxieties expressed in Pixar movies (aside from the ever-present abandonment fears), it might be the overwhelming replicability f all things, the loss of individuality that self-sustaining systems can cause.
From the headquarters imagined like air-traffic control, and the personality islands shown as theme park-style zones, Inside Out is Pixar’s perfect vision of work and play combined, each piece of the system working together to produce something that keeps our world (i.e. the one inhabited by the kids and parents watching the movie) secretly ticking over. Behind the scenes of all life, there are mechanisms and employees. It’s an idea they’ve shown us before: the toys that we never know are alive; the Monsters we don’t believe are real, let alone are regular-joe laborers at the coal-faces of our subconscious, with training days, performance targets, and admin to contend with; the secret superheroes in desk job disguises; and, in Inside Out the emotions we don’t know are little people, too. The exile these characters undergo is a motif that shwos up flaws in the system, gaps where the design might need adjustment to accommodate the whims, imperfections or essential chaos of human emotions.
Mirroring these depictions of systemic efficiency in its own publicity, Pixar Animation Studios likes to portray itself as the ultimate workplace, a colourful, laid-back mega-office housing a creative team focused not on the awesome technologies that undergird everything they put onto our screens, but on the more humane and ancient art of storytelling: the premises, with their astonishingly fun-looking balance between work, life and play (their animators’ workstations look a lot like teenagers’ bedrooms), is the focus of every behind-the-scenes-at-Pixar documentary I’ve ever seen, and “the story comes first” is the rote-learned mantra of any Pixar staffer who happens to find an interviewer’s microphone in front of their face.
As I finished writing this, I wondered if I was making the Pixar canon sound tired and routine. I hope not. One of the marvels of the company’s output is how lightly it skips over familiar turf and remakes it, energizing it with their distinctive pastel-colored designs and deep detail. I also wondered if that style was wearing thin, and if it was time for Pixar to stretch themselves and try out new character styles. That would certainly be exciting to see: there is one sequence of Inside Out where Joy, Sadness and Bing Bong take a shortcut through the “abstract thought” section of Riley’s mind and find themselves figured and deconstructed.
It’s a dazzling idea and fun to watch, but it shows up some of the limitations of the Pixar brand – the entire film exists as a metaphor for how we are “strangers to ourselves”, controlled by the machinations of things that are outside our control. The film’s visualization of that metaphor is thus turns it into something manageably literal such as workplace, rather than transforming it into something truly, intuitively imagined or abstracted. But this is probably quibbling. Most of our best artists refine a personal style rather than constantly reinventing their forms of expression; the Pixar system works, it makes people (me included) feel strong emotions, and it engages kids in explorable story worlds without pandering or condescension. By replaying and distilling their core theme of exile, they show us what it is to build fictional worlds and figure out how to make them better. At their best we can also see their human staff modeling a similarly perfectionist workplace ethic.
- Watching Inside Out reminded me of the episode of The Simpsons episode “Moaning Lisa”, where Lisa cannot explain her own melancholy. Marge’s instructions to smile through it all and suppress her emotions only make things worse, until they both accept that being sad is part of a full emotional life. This bounced me on to a vague memory of the TV show Herman’s Head, in which Yeardley Smith, the voice of Lisa Simpson, played a recurring role. And somehow my brain, perhaps being lead by a squabble at the controls of my own inner headquarters, took me back to Don Hertzfeld’s extraordinary, beautiful and profound World of Tomorrow, which features the line “I am very proud of my sadness, because it means I am more alive.” The same sentiment activates and completes the plot of Inside Out.
- I wondered if it’s a coincidence or an acknowledgement of this workplace aesthetic that many of the major cast members are drawn from the alumni of TV shows such as The Office (Phyllis Smith, Mindy Kaling, Rashida Jones), Parks and Recreation (Amy Poehler, Rashida Jones again), principal Muppeteers Frank Oz and Dave Goelz, along with a bunch of NPR regulars including Peter Sagal, Paula Poundstone….. and that’s where I stopped because it seemed a bit too tenuous. Unless anyone else spotted more connections in the voice cast that might fit in?