Every article I read about the upcoming Pixar movie Inside Out makes me want to see the movie NOW! This yearning goes beyond my obsession with Pixar arguably the most successful movie studio of all time. I mean look at this release slate!
Year Title Worldwide Gross Rotten Tomatoes IMDB 1995 Toy Story $361M 92 8.2 1998 A Bug’s Life $363M 91 7.3 1999 Toy Story 2 $485M 100 8.0 2001 Monsters, Inc. $585M 95 8.0 2003 Finding Nemo $868M 98 8.2 2004 The Incredibles $631M 97 8.1 2006 Cars $461M 74 7.4 2007 Ratatouille $621M 98 8.1 2008 Wall-E $521M 96 8.5 2009 Up $731M 98 8.3 2010 Toy Story 3 $1,063B 99 8.6 2011 Cars 2 $550M 37 6.5 2012 Brave $535M 82 7.7 2013 Monsters University $743M 83 7.5
Add it all up and you get a total worldwide box office gross of $8.5B with an average of $608M per film by far the highest of any studio in the history of Hollywood.
More numbers: Pixar films have garnered 26 Academy Awards, 7 Golden Globes, and 3 Grammy Awards.
Still more numbers: 7 of Pixar’s 14 films are in the IMDB Top 250 Movies of all time.
Behind all the numbers is the real reason for my obsession with Pixar. It’s their obsession with Story. They are all about Story.
Yet that is not the entirety of why I am so pumped to see Inside Out. What really has me going is the story concept. Here is a description written by the good folks at Pixar:
Growing up can be a bumpy road, and it’s no exception for Riley, who is uprooted from her Midwest life when her father starts a new job in San Francisco. Like all of us, Riley is guided by her emotions – Joy, Fear, Anger, Disgust and Sadness. The emotions live in Headquarters, the control center inside Riley’s mind, where they help advise her through everyday life. As Riley and her emotions struggle to adjust to a new life in San Francisco, turmoil ensues in Headquarters. Although Joy, Riley’s main and most important emotion, tries to keep things positive, the emotions conflict on how best to navigate a new city, house and school.
I’m thinking Inside Out may be the perfect movie for my take on Story because it is literally bouncing back and forth between the External World of the physical journey and the Internal World of the psychological journey. When I talk about characters starting off in a state of Disunity, about the plot servicing their transformation process whereby they get in touch will key aspects of their psyche as they move toward Unity, character archetypes, all of that stuff I blab about on the blog and in my classes, apparently that is what Inside Out traffics in — left, right, front, and center. Check out the trailer:
So I was particularly interested in an article I read yesterday from The Atlantic called “Pixar’s Mood Master,” a feature on one of their directors and members of the Braintrust, Pete Docter, co-writer and director of Inside Out. An excerpt from the article:
In 1943, Disney released an eight-minute film titled Reason and Emotion. The film personified the ability to think and the ability to feel as, respectively, a bespectacled, suit-wearing prig and an impulsive, lascivious caveman. “Within the mind of each of us,” intoned the narrator, “these two wage a ceaseless battle” for control of the (in the film, quite literal) mental steering wheel.
Sixty-six years later, when the animator, screenwriter, and director Pete Docter started planning Inside Out, his own film personifying the workings of the human mind, Reason and Emotion was one of the first references he consulted. He’d seen it before, as a cartoon-besotted child, and he remembered admiring its comic boldness. Watching the film again in 2009, however, he saw its limitations.
“It’s actually a propaganda film,” Docter told me during my recent visit to his office at Pixar Animation Studios, in Emeryville, California, across the bay from San Francisco… “The basic message was”—here Docter put on a stern voice and furrowed his enormous brow (his colleagues like to sketch him as a sunnier version of Frankenstein’s monster)—“Don’t let Hitler control you with fear!”
Reason and Emotion portrayed humans as automatons, and denigrated feelings as primitive and threatening. Docter knew that he wanted his own exploration of the human mind to put emotions front and center, and to treat them with more nuance. “More nuance” may, in fact, be a radical understatement. Inside Out, Docter’s third Pixar feature and arguably the company’s most ambitious film to date, is as bright and colorful as a Day-Glo pinball machine. But it is also as high-concept, narratively ornate, and psychologically intricate as a Christopher Nolan film—Inception by way of Fantasia.
Here is the short animated movie Reason and Emotion:
This whole discussion got me thinking about big summer movies, particularly the franchise films and popcorn movies featuring special effects and CGI out the arse. Why do some of them work so well and others leave me flat? And it all boils down to the characters and their emotional lives. In movies like The Avengers or Mad Max: Fury Road, the filmmakers paid attention to the psychological dimension of the characters, a level of nuance amidst the spectacle. Others? Not so much. Inauthentic characters. Manufactured emotions.
That made me wonder if the filmmakers, who may be awesome at imagining, constructing, and shooting incredibly challenging action sequences, have some sort of fundamental fear of “feelings as primitive and threatening”.
Not Pixar. They are unafraid of emotion. They understand the power of storytelling that connects with audiences on that level.
Another member of the Pixar Braintrust is Andrew Stanton, whose movie credits include Toy Story, Finding Nemo, and WALL-E. He did a TED Talk about storytelling that is excellent and speaks to the importance of exploring the emotional nature of narratives. He began the presentation with a joke, then said this:
We all love stories. We’re born from them. Stories are who we are. We all want affirmations that our lives have meaning. And nothing has a greater affirmation than when we connect through stories. It can cross the barriers of time – past, present and future – and allows us to experiences the similarities between ourselves and through others, real and imagined.
The children’s television host Mr. Rogers always carried in his wallet a quote from a social worker that said, “Frankly there isn’t anyone you couldn’t learn to love once you know their story.” And the way I like to interpret that is probably the greatest story commandment, “Make me care.”
Please, emotionally, intellectually, aesthetically… make me care.
Setting aside my affection for Pixar, I care about Inside Out even before I’ve seen it because of the emotions it arouses in me. I was an Air Force brat. I moved around a lot as a child. I can relate to that sense of displacement Riley feels having been transplanted from the Midwest to California. I can remember my turbulent adolescent years. As a parent, I have experienced one son going through adolescence and have another one smack in the middle of that stage right now. And the five emotions as characters in the movie — Joy, Fear, Anger, Disgust and Sadness — I’ve got them all at work in my psychological life.
This is not arbitrary. Pixar knew going in with this project they were dealing with a story setup that touches on several universal points of emotional connection.
So what am I saying? Pixar is great. Inside Out looks like a movie I’ll not only enjoy to the fullest, I’ll probably use it as inspiration for my teaching. And this takeaway for all of us as writers:
Don’t shy away from the emotional lives of our characters. You want to make a reader care about your script? Perhaps the single most important thing you can do is delve into the psychological dynamics at work with your characters, identifying universal themes, and get curious to see how they play out over the course of your story.
For the rest of The Atlantic article, go here.