You did a lot more than write the screenplay for Inside Out. Along with Ronaldo Del Carmen you also developed the original story and co-directed it. But I want to talk about how Inside Out is structured as a story, so “Co-screenwriter” is going to have to do for now.
See, there’s something about the way Inside Out is constructed that is just so very Pixar. There is no fat on the film – everything is there for a reason, and story ideas that are planted early come to fruition in unexpected but wholly satisfying ways. The emotional crisis of a preteen girl named Riley – told mainly from within her own head where each emotion is a character running the human brain as a day job– is certainly an unexpected concept from a studio that has been focusing lately more on sequels and prequels. You helped create the original Monsters Inc. and the glorious Up, after all. I don’t think it’s in your nature to make something completely unoriginal.
A lot of care and thinking has been put into every moment we see on screen, not matter how small. You can feel the guiding hand of what Ed Catmull detailed in his book about Pixar’s creative process, Creativity Inc.: when a film is in development at Pixar, it is subjected to relentless group discussions where every aspect of it is scrutinized and questioned until what is left is hopefully the purest story possible. Every character, every beat, every turn in Inside Out has been scrutinized by Pixar’s core creative team, whether any of their names appear in the credits or not. Inside and out, Inside Out is every inch a Pixar film – and that’s what caused a bit of a crisis for me as a viewer.
More on that later – let’s look at everything else first.
Being a Pixar production doesn't just impact story development. Every single thing on screen is meticulously devised. The production design and working details of Riley’s emotions are both beautiful and hilarious. You’ve spoken before about how much of an influence Hayao Miyazaki’s work has had on you as an artist, and the way you combine—and fully embrace—the everyday drama of life and absurd whimsy, without a need to completely reconcile the two. This makes you perhaps the most Miyazaki-like of Pixar’s directors. The characters that run Riley’s emotions—Joy, Fear, Anger, Disgust, and Sadness—look almost fairy-like, with an oh-so-slight glowing shimmer that follows them (Anger’s head literally shoots flames, adding to the supernatural element). The world of Riley’s consciousness feels like a candy-colored version of the spirit world Miyazaki’s Spirited Away. It has its own social order, rules and characters that all have jobs to do and want things to work the way they’re supposed to because that’s how it’s always been. Like Miyazaki’s spirits, the last thing anyone needs is something upsetting the status quo.
Of all the characters running Riley’s brain, the one who most wants things to never change is Joy. Played with her unique combination of pluck, desperation and maddeningly cheerful aggression, Amy Poehler makes Joy the Leslie Knope of the id. She sees herself as the leader of the five emotions, and is set on making sure Riley’s daily life and memories have the least amount of possible stress. So of course when developing this story, Pete, you made sure that a series of accidents and good intentions gone wrong lead Joy to get tossed from her safe spot in HQ to the wilds of Riley’s subconscious with the one emotion she is least equipped to deal with: Sadness.
This brings me back to my point of crisis. You knew to do this from a story point of view because you’ve done it before: the two quarrelling characters that get tossed from the safety of their privileged position and need to make their way back through a series of obstacles is taken right from the Toy Story playbook (a playbook you also co-wrote). Joy’s constant exasperation with Sadness’s refusal to accept her place and stay out of Joy’s way has much in common with the Woody/Buzz Lightyear dynamic. Both characters here are funny and original—and Phyllis Smith’s voice work as Sadness is at least on par with Poehler’s—but we’ve seen this situation before.
Similarly, the “it’s just a job” take on the inner workings of the human psyche has a decidedly Monsters Inc. bent to it. As these familiar elements came to my mind while watching Inside Out, I questioned whether you and your team had taken the safe route on your journey, choosing the tried and true in place of the actually new. Worried that Pixar’s iterative, group-based story development could be so good at distilling out story impurities that what was left, while pure, was also becoming homogenized, that the personal quirks were being lost to group consensus.
But, put simply, that’s my problem to deal with, not Inside Out’s—I can’t judge a film for what I think might have been there. The only responsibility you and the entire production team have is to the film. If the film works (and it does), then whatever baggage I bring based on your or your studio’s previous works is mine and mine alone. And I think I can see why you wanted to make these familiar choices: you’ve anchored your entire story on the emotional breakdown of an 11-year old girl. That’s a bold choice for what is being sold as a fun night out with those goofy guys from Pixar. You use those familiar elements to pull off quite the balancing act: what Riley is experiencing with Joy and Sadness missing from her psyche is pretty heavy stuff, and probably not what a general audience will be expecting when they purchase their tickets. Emotional shutdown isn’t usually associated with a fun time at the movies, after all.
I’m not going to complain if you want to support a story this potentially upsetting (especially for those close in age to Riley, not to mention their parents) with elements that make us all feel a little more at ease, or let us know a steady hand is guiding us through the rough terrain. (I will, however, complain just a little bit about the various themed “lands” in Riley’s brain that felt pre-designed to work in a new Disney attraction – I can already imagine lineups for the “Don’t Touch the Lava” obstacle course.)
When the familiar and the unexpected work in concert, they influence each other. As we invest more in Riley, we imbue every small moment, every reaction she can’t even explain to herself with a weight that most summer blockbusters can’t generate by threatening to destroy the entire planet Earth. And characters that seem introduced only to generate laughs become tragic figures when they realize the role they have to play in Riley’s mental development—a role that is as heartbreaking for their acceptance of it as it is in its inevitability. You had me so hooked on the familiar storytelling that I didn’t even realize how invested I was in Riley’s story – I had my own emotional reaction that I couldn’t explain.
At least not until I could sit back a bit and admire your craft from a distance.