You know what’d be nice? If the Oscars would get over themselves and give “Inside Out” and Pete Docter the Best Picture trophy they so richly deserve. It’s never going to happen; there’s too much politics and vanity. And I shouldn’t care, because the Oscars are dumb and obsessed with “prestige,” and I’m totally in the bag for Pixar anyway. But I’m still naïve enough to wish that this movie, which transcends even the usual Pixar greatness, would get the accolades it’s owed. Even if it’s a damn cartoon.
And this damn cartoon. Ostensibly the tale of two emotions, Joy (Amy Poehler) and Sadness (Phyllis Smith), who are racing to restore the fragile psyche of the 12-year old girl they control, it’s really a rumination on the role that opposing emotions play in our lives, and how they serve each other to make life a richer experience. Heavy subject matter for a movie whose biggest demographic will be under 10, but it strikes a nifty balance between standard summer movie adventure and elegant metaphor for the vagaries of the soul.
The film’s true power became evident to me within days of seeing it. My son was having one of those occasional bouts of barely suppressed rage that come with being in the second grade. Only this time, my first thought wasn’t, “What could you possibly have to be upset about?” Instead, the thought I had was, “Ah, looks like Anger is at the controls.” And that’s when I realized that “Inside Out” hadn’t just been a delight to watch. It had given me a new way of thinking about thinking.
Within several weeks, I managed to defuse a silly argument with my wife (our favorite kind) by recognizing that I had put Fear in my own driver’s seat. Even now, months after the movie came out, I’m still trying to be curious about what’s going on in the heads of friends, family, even random people in line at airport security. I’m not great at it, but I like to think I’m a more thoughtful, more empathetic person on the whole. And considering the usual reach of these movies, there’s a decent chance that a whole lot more of us now have the thought in their head that we can all get along if we take the time to wonder what’s going on in someone else’s mind. And wouldn’t that be something?
Even if “Inside Out” wasn’t a newfound tool for improving mental health, it would still be an outstanding movie. It checks off all our expectations for a Pixar film, with strong vocal performances, clever writing with imaginative, original stories (okay, well, maybe not … wholly … original), and a truly inventive visual landscape. Every aspect of the workings of the mind is explored, from fleeting memory to abstract thought to the bittersweet nature of nostalgia. And, like the best of Pixar’s catalog, the movie is filled with set-pieces and moments that stick in your brain long after you’ve left the theater. Joy’s first sight of baby Riley, a poignant dream of ice skating, and of course the stunning sacrifice of Bing Bong (Richard Kind) to save the little girl he loves. Damn it, now I need another box of Kleenex.
Thinking it through, I’m okay with being sad that “Inside Out” will just be dismissed as another piece of disposable entertainment, when its reach was so much higher. After all, the movie taught me that Sadness is an essential part of life, and that without it Joy would be hollow and meaningless. 2015 gave us a film that changed our vocabulary for understanding emotion, and I guess that’s a lot for a movie to accomplish, even without an Oscar. How did you change the world, “Hateful Eight?”