One of the unexpected side effects of having children is that you wind up watching a lot of kids’ entertainment. For some, this might sound like a nightmare, but it’s not always bad. Sure, you want to avoid Teletubbies, Barney, and most of those “tween” sitcoms on the Disney Channel, but as Theodore Sturgeon taught us decades ago, if 90% of everything is crud, then there must be 10% hiding out there that’s really extraordinary. The trick is to steer kids towards that magical 10%.
At least that’s the theory. But a couple of weeks ago, when I found myself sitting through The Spongebob Movie for a second time, trying to block out the screams of my brain cells as they died one by one, I realized I had failed. The Spongebob TV show is actually kind of funny, but the recent movie is excruciatingly padded—a 15 minute idea stretched over an hour-and-a-half. By the time it was over, I not only hated all sea life—sponges, starfish, crabs—I even started hating people who happened to be named “Bob.” Bob Marley? Bob Saget? Bob Hope? You could toss a bag over all of them and throw them overboard.
That’s why I decided I was through with kids’ movies this summer. That might sound impossible for someone with kids, but I figured calling a moratorium on them would be pretty easy. Children have very little sense of time, so I knew when they asked about seeing the next big movie, I’d be able to throw them off with my patented “lame Dad” routine. Many of you probably heard some version of it when you were younger. It goes something like this. When asked about going to see the latest animated adventures of … whatever, the “lame Dad” responds distractedly: “Oh, yeah, sure … probably … I dunno … Is it out yet? … We’ll see … I’ll check on it later.” Such incoherent babbling is a powerful rhetorical weapon, instilling a perfect marriage of confusion and vague hopefulness in the listener. It’s a technique that has fed the careers of many a politician.
Unfortunately, as kids get older, it doesn’t work so well. I learned that last week when my youngest burst into the room after watching—you guessed it—Spongebob on Saturday morning: “Hey Dad! Can we go see Inside Out?”
I had been anticipating this, so I called on my “lame Dad” script to work its magic. “Oh, yeah, sure …” I mumbled. “Probably …”
“What is that supposed to mean? Can we go see it?”
“I dunno … Is it out yet?”
“Yes. They just advertised it. They said it was in theaters now.”
“Uh … We’ll see … I’ll check on it later.”
“What do you have to check on? It’s out. Now. They just said so. Can we go see it?”
And with that, I had to bid a sad farewell to the “lame Dad” script. Of course things could be worse. I usually like Disney movies, and with the exception of Cars 2, Pixar has one of the best track records of any studio—Toy Story, The Incredibles, Up. So I figured that at the very least, Inside Out would probably be mildly entertaining.
What I didn’t expect was an art film.
In many ways, the animated children’s genre is the antithesis of the art film. That doesn’t mean children’s animation can’t be great art or demonstrate great artistry—that happens all the time. But with the exception of Fantasia, few kids’ movies have the self-consciousness that typifies most so-called art films. Instead, due to high production costs, children’s animated movies tend to have big budgets, follow rigid narrative formulas, and aim for the broadest possible audience. That doesn’t leave much room for personal vision, subversiveness, or experimentation.
That’s what makes Inside Out so surprising. If a big-budget, mainstream, kids’ movie could ever be classified as an art film, I think it would a lot like Inside Out.
To be fair, no one is likely to confuse this movie with the cinema of Ingmar Bergman, Jean-Luc Godard, John Cassavetes, or David Lynch. It’s still a Disney-Pixar movie, so many of the formulaic elements are safely in place: we still have a plucky heroine, Joy, who overcomes adversity and learns a lesson; we still have a goofy sidekick, Bing Bong, who is sweet, lovable, and a bit dim-witted; and we still have colorful supporting characters like Anger, who, blessed with the growly vocal inflections of comedian Lewis Black, could get a laugh just by saying, “Hi. How are you doing?”
But much of the movie’s execution is actually quite experimental. The film has a dual focus. The human story involves an 11-year-old girl, Riley, whose family makes a difficult move from Minnesota to San Francisco. She wrestles with the typical adjustment problems, all of which are compounded because the move catches her during one of those awkward developmental transitions—in her case, leaving childhood behind and entering life as a pre-teenager.
But that’s only half the story. The other half focuses on a cast of anthropomorphic emotions—Joy, Sadness, Anger, Fear, Disgust—that manage Riley’s brain functions, memories, and personality. When two of the emotions—Joy and Sadness—are accidentally thrown out of the control room, they embark on a long, perilous journey through the various regions of Riley’s conscious and subconscious mind. It’s like Fantastic Voyage as written by Sigmund Freud.
There is an incredible sense of architecture to the way the filmmakers have visualized all of the areas of Riley’s brain—far more elaborate than anything in Christopher Nolan’s Inception. There is even a room of abstract thought where we watch characters slowly transform from being three-dimensional to two-dimensional. Then, they become deconstructed, leaving them little more than abstract concepts. You sure won’t find anything like that in The Lion King or Frozen. It’s like watching animated panels from Scott McCloud’s Understanding Comics.
The film also features some seemingly innocuous moments that are actually very complex. For instance, in one scene where Riley and her parents eat dinner, we watch not only the three family members interacting, but also each of their emotional “control rooms” outfitted with their own quintet of anthropomorphic emotions. When a human character starts to say something, the film cuts to the character’s control room where the emotions decide what to do. Then it cuts back to the dinner table. In other words, even though the dinner only involves three people, the filmmakers wind up juggling 18 distinctive characters for the scene. And it’s all executed so seamlessly that even a child can follow along. For a film geek, this is one of those moments that makes you want to stand up and applaud.
But beyond the technical artistry, the film also defiantly challenges one of the fundamental conventions of its genre. More than any film I’ve seen this year, Inside Out is sad—deeply, profoundly sad. There are still plenty of jokes and action scenes, but the combination of the family’s move and the developmental changes Riley undergoes leads to an extended form of sadness that borders on mild depression. The sadness is then transferred to the control room scenes where the anthropomorphic emotions watch in horror while Riley’s “core memories” become infected with a sadness that permanently destroys key aspects of her personality.
Plenty of Disney films have embraced tragedy—Bambi has undoubtedly come up in more than one person’s psychological counseling session—but the sadness of Inside Out is far more prolonged. It’s like that chapter of Winnie the Pooh where Christopher Robin has to leave for school, or that moment in Neil Gaiman’s The Graveyard Book where Bod leaves the cemetery, only in this case the sad feeling extends throughout the entire story.
Moreover, not only does the movie dare to embrace sadness, it actually celebrates it. As the story moves forward, we gradually realize that the hero is not Joy, but rather Sadness. As Joy, herself, learns, her abilities are not enough. Inside Out makes, essentially, a yin-and-yang argument, suggesting that sadness plays as important a role in Riley’s emotional well being as any of the other emotions.
When was the last time you saw a kids’ movie that was also an ode to dejection? It feels like Pixar is taking a real shot across the bow at a children’s entertainment industry that thrives on things like The Spongebob Movie. Joy, while pleasant and fun, is not enough to sustain a person, nor is lighthearted fun enough to sustain an entire movie genre. We need our sadness—both in our lives and in our entertainment.
 The set-up is similar to the final sketch in Woody Allen’s Everything You Always Wanted to Know About Sex, where Burt Reynolds captains a Star Trek-like bridge inside the body of a man on a date. The difference here is that in Inside Out, the scene is literally three times more complicated.