Growing up, we ‘70s kids had three revolutionary social-emotional concepts rammed down our impressionable youthful minds by pop culture and the public school system (or both, in the case of Sesame Street and the multi-media, post-hippie, self-empowerment Free to Be You and Me):
- Be yourself, no matter what other people think
- Nurture and maintain your Inner Child all your life
- Get in touch with your feelings
(Tied for fourth place were “Don’t go in the water” and “May the Force be with you.”)
Those messages arrived in sharp, reactionary, post-‘60s contrast to the stoic American Pioneer culture of our parents and grandparents, whose hard-bitten mantras (at least in my rural Midwest) were more along the lines of Don’t stand out, Grow up and be responsible, Work hard, Bury your hardships (and a large number of your family members) and move on, and Keep your damn feelings to yourself. In fact, much of 20th-century literature, film, and television was a steady Modern, then Post-modern, effort to undermine exactly those repressed and repressive societal and emotional restraints.
All of which, in part, helps explain why adults (ranging from college kids to post-grad media hipsters to young parents of their own young children) have lost their damn minds this summer in over-the-top praise of Pixar’s (admittedly well-crafted and highly entertaining) animated feature Inside Out. Or, to put it less fairly, “Just what we need: Another kids film that makes adults bawl over a ‘lost’ youth they’ve never really grown out of. Don’t you have to fully leave childhood before you can miss it?”
Okay, I’m being overly snarky about Inside Out, so I want to be clear on two points: Yes, it’s a delightful film, and No, I’m certainly not saying we as a culture should go back to being stoic, emotionally closed-off lumps of repression. But I can’t help but feel that as a culture (and with all the sweeping hypocritical generalities that statement entails) our “embrace your emotions” pendulum may now have swung about as far to the touchy-feely left as it needs to, with poor Inside Out as Exhibit A.
Granted, I have my—ahem—issues with Pixar’s corporate Parental Overlord, Disney. Anymore, whether Pixar is turning out terrific works of solid visual craftsmanship and storytelling excellence (WALL-E, Up, Toy Story 3, and now Inside Out) or sub-par belches of corporate earnings obligation (Cars II, Brave, Monsters University), I admit to having trouble seeing any of it, good or bad, outside the lens of Disney/Pixar marketplace branding. Sure, everyone’s happy to see Pixar on the artistic rise again after several years of sliding—which also means some of this summer’s overly-effusive praise for Inside Out from critics and fans feels like relief that a beloved creative company is back on track; more rooting support than honest reviewing. But today even the animation company’s best stuff no longer hums with vital, unique, creative independence—it all feels to my jaded soul like “Pixar” the Disney brand, not Pixar the weird and wonderful fount of creative innovation.
While I enjoyed watching Inside Out (though the middle third dragged for me as the film fell into all-too-familiar and unnecessary “action quest” narrative hoop-jumping and pointless spazzery), I can no longer turn off the part of my cynical film-mind that asks how much of all this “wonderment” is driven by genuine creativity and how much is shaped by demographic necessity.
Animated kids films (not to mention superhero movies) that also appeal to adults are a powerful box-office common denominator—they hit, as they say in the Industry, all four quadrants (young, old, male, female). After all, although most of us may have grown up into very different adults with very different lives, interests, and tastes, we all seem to share a sort of culturally imagined “childhood”—not necessarily our real, individual childhoods (and all the unique fears and hardships they may have included), but the simplified one Disney—feeding off our yearning for nostalgia—has been very carefully and powerfully constructing and selling us almost all our lives.
Also, today’s adults under 40 have grown up almost entirely within Disney’s (and later Dreamworks’ and others’) animated-feature Renaissance/Box-Office Bubble—this is a generation that doesn’t just see (usually CGI) animated feature films as “acceptable” adult fare, but as essential. More often with movies like Inside Out, the question isn’t “Is there enough sophisticated humor to amuse parents who have to take their kids?” but “Amid all these grown-up references and themes, are the actual kids going to enjoy any of this?”
I don’t have children myself, but I have nieces and nephews, and I know that for the first six to eight years, they are mostly non-discriminating in their movie tastes—they are just as likely to watch Brother Bear a dozen times in a row than Finding Nemo. (Disney knows this all too well, which is why The Disney Channel is deliberately designed as an early-childhood addiction delivery system.) When younger children express a preference for “better quality” kids films, it’s often simply because they’re mirroring the tastes modelled by the adults around them. (I’m not complaining—that’s how I turned my young niece into a Lord of the Rings fan and my nephew into a Packers fan.)
(I recall a conversation with a prominent Chicago film critic who said he started showing his child Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey at a young, impressionable age, noting that not only did the kid love it for its graceful visual majesty, but that its deliberate pacing–which has defeated many adult viewers–helped build the child’s budding attention span. Hell, if you can get a youngster to watch Kubrick, you might even have a shot at getting them to sit still long enough read one of those… whattyacallem… book thingees…)
Now, 26 years after The Little Mermaid and 20 years after Toy Story, we have an adult generation that does not see animated “kids” movies as any sort of “lesser” genre; that is culturally hard-wired to embrace animated films. If ever there was a time ripe and a field fertile for a major animated film company to move beyond the kids movies and into animated adult fare, this is it. And yet adult animation lovers in America are still being fed basically the same animated kids feature formulas. Sure Pixar has those formulas (which Inside Out follows seamlessly) polished to perfection, but when animation—trapped by the lucrative marketplace it created—steadfastly refuses to grow up, that perfection becomes a limitation. Children’s animation is a big and serious business, but as much as adult viewers now take animation seriously as cinema, big-budget, big studios rigorously avoid doing anything serious with it.
Take Inside Out, for example. The film does an admirable job of painting, with pleasing and entertaining strokes, a nuanced and sophisticated metaphor for how our emotions and memory function. Nuanced and sophisticated, that is, for a young audience.
But as hard as the film works to explain why we need sadness in our lives, why life can’t be all joy all the time, in the end what does it give its large adult audience but yet another feel-good happy ending? Inside Out may be about the delicate mixture of joy and sadness in our lives, but of course it makes sure that the film itself falls squarely into the “Joy” column when all is said and done. Because it’s a kids movie. Meanwhile, adults may cry bittersweet tears of recognition at what they feel is a candy-colored representation of their own pre- (and perhaps post-) adolescent inner life, but they leave the theater with big smiles.
Those of us who grew up on Old Yeller, The Yearling, Where the Red Fern Grow, and Sounder might argue that not all kids movies have to have typical “happy” endings. (But good lord, did anyone in literature or film have a pet that lived back then?) Chalk it up to the last wave of cultural influence from that post-pioneer, pre-Depression-era “life is hard” mindset. Notice how after WWII, most animal companions in popular culture, like Lassie, Flipper, Gentle Ben, and Benji, never died?
And of course, Disney itself perpetuates a pantheon of imaginary (often animal) friends who never get old, never die, and will never leave you. Nor you them. Inside Out features a heart-rending scene in which the beloved childhood imaginary friend Bing Bong must be left behind to fade from pre-adolescent memory. The irony is, however, that Bing Bong aside, Disney and Pixar’s beloved characters never have to leave us, even as adults. The Toy Story films may wring pathos from the idea of children out-growing their toys, but in reality, we adults never really have to leave Buzz and Woody behind. At least not as long as the merchandise keeps selling and the sequels keep ringing up box office.
Meanwhile, as we adults continue to clutch our Pixar plushy toys, despite the variety of Asian anime that vibrantly covers every possible range of genre and emotional impact, no one in Hollywood seems able to even imagine an animated feature film for adults that deals in actual cathartic tragedy or true sadness. And to be fair to Hollywood, it’s not like we are clamoring for darker, more adult fare. The film industry may pursue happy adolescent fare because, as noted, it rings bigger demographic bells, but we’re also addicted to the sugar. Ask most anyone over 20 why he or she goes the movies, and you’re likely to hear “entertainment” “fun” “to escape and not think about all the real-life sucky stress and stuff I have to deal with daily.”
(For a brief, deluded moment, I thought Lava, the Pixar short that opens Inside Out, might dare to sneak in something like heavy pathos, as the lonely singing Pacific Ocean volcano slipped silent and solitaire under the sea, his hopeful sung-plea for love unheard by the nearby, oblivious “female” volcano–don’t ask; I do not understand volcano gender and genitalia. For a second, I thought, “Wow, that’s a really powerful, painful, and emotionally real look at how some people miss what they see as their last shot at a supposed ‘happy’ life by a mere flicker of fate.” Needless to say, the musical short for kids did not end that way. This is also why no one is asking me to write children’s books or films.)
Again, I want to stress that this is not entirely a knock on Inside Out in particular—it’s a fine film, and I can get behind the supposed educational benefits it may have for its younger viewers. (I’m not as flibbertly flutterly gob-smacked by the “incredibly creative imagery” other adults are swooning over in the film–maybe my personal bar is set a little higher by my consumption of genuinely imaginative visual work through more daring anime, online art, and truly jaw-droppingly innovative comic-book work. I thought Inside Out’s visuals were cute and clever, but not especially ground-breaking or mind-blowing.) If the film does help create a “growing mindset” in children (the idea that being aware of how you think and grow and develop mentally and emotionally can give you a cognitive boost), then more power to it. And as someone forever fascinated by how our minds work—including our emotions and memories—I appreciated Inside Out’s admittedly simplistic visual metaphors.
However, I’d hope that when the inevitable sequel comes along, focusing on the film’s main character Riley in puberty, we see the film’s lovable “Emotion” characters put into a larger context alongside things like Intellect and Reason. (After all, what is the survival of puberty and entry into adulthood but the process of learning to use Intellect and Reason to overrule unruly emotional needs and outbursts?) But I’m not holding my breath…
(Personally, I also wanted to see more in the film about just how malleable and flat-out untrustworthy our memories are. I’d have loved a shot of “memory marbles” stacked together on the Long-term Memory racks getting soft and mushy and eventually squishing together into one. For example, the way most of your adult memories of your childhood birthdays tend to get pressed together into one sort of “Super Birthday Memory” that stands in for them all.
(Or, in a more adult film made for people my age, a visual representation of how shaky that Long-term Memory Vault gets over the age of 40. How memory marbles sometimes fall off the rack and roll out of sight, and suddenly you find yourself completely unable to remember Paul Rudd’s name for almost half a panicked hour. Or just more of a sense of how all our memories are lies we tell ourselves; made-up little shorthand fantasies, artist’s renditions we concocted—and often revise—to represent our past experiences of reality. A cognitive professor once told me there’s technically no such thing as a “false memory,” because our brains treat all memories are equally “true” whether they conform to “real facts” or not. Which is also to say, they’re all equally false.)
Still, all of Inside Out’s educational strengths and entertaining humor are supposed to be for kids. Should grown-ups over 25 really be gaining insights into their own inner emotional lives from primary-colored cartoon characters? Stepping back from it, there’s a level of absurd incongruity to adults trying to gain insight into their human emotional landscapes that’s similar to when Jurassic Park movies use that intentionally silly DNA cartoon character to explain why there are Giant F**king Dinosaurs Trying to Eat You.
Inside Out is a wonderful, funny, lovely, laudable kids’ film. Come the fall and winter, the theaters will fill in part with Oscar-y “prestige” films for “grown-ups,” and most likely one of them will win Best Picture over Inside Out. But whatever happens, for a large number of culturally literate, cinematically savvy adults, Inside Out will end up being their “favorite” film of the year—the one they go back and watch over and over, with or without children present. Which should make us wonder if we aren’t wholeheartedly embracing adult-oriented films anymore because Hollywood makes so few of them, or is Hollywood tailoring and marketing more and more kids’ films to adults because that’s what we told it we want? When we complain that Hollywood doesn’t make movies for grown-ups anymore, maybe we’re the ones who first need to grow up.