Monday, July 13, 2015

All the Feels

The most remarkable thing about Pixar's miraculously great Inside Out on a storytelling level is how it would seem to have no antagonist. And not in the slightly relativistic sense that 'in real life, there are no bad guys.' That applies here, but it remains that there is no single person working to thwart our heroes, in part because there aren't even any clear-cut heroes. Joy is the de facto leader of Riley's brain, but her insistence on running the show creates as many problems as it solves, and by the end of the film she's ceded some of her authority to the often more prudent Sadness, whom she's been undermining the entire time. Even if we accept that Joy and Sadness are collectively our heroes, that still leaves open the issue of there being no villains. Anger, Disgust, and Fear are trying to keep things from coming apart but don't have the experience to do so, and they know it. The various other workers in Riley's brain provide obstacles that need to be overcome, but they're not exactly working at cross purposes; they're just carrying on business as usual.

Therein lies the brilliance of the conceit at the heart of the movie. Everything of consequence that happens within Riley's mind--the crumbling of her personality islands, the irretrievable loss of memories--is part of its working order. To stop working, Riley would have to be brain-dead; she still functions without her core memories, but in increasingly dysfunctional ways that become self-destructive. The moment when the control panel starts greying over and the emotions can't control it is a refreshingly lucid depiction of depression as not mere sadness, but the inability to feel emotions of any kind--but it's an 'aha' moment for a first-time viewer that this is in fact a story about depression, or at least the potential for it without a healthy exercising of one's emotions.

It is only after surveying the story as a whole that the theme of depression comes into full view. For what is depression but the mind turned against itself, marshaling its analytical and emotional power towards self-flagellation and eventual self-destruction? And what is going on inside Riley's brain but that her inner workings are working against themselves? Thus do we return to the issue of an antagonist: if Riley's brain is the protagonist of the story, working to keep her well-adjusted and healthy, it is also its own opponent, spiraling into lethargic depression when its attempts to stay relentlessly happy fail. A depressed person is their own worst enemy.

And that is why Pixar are geniuses.

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