On Pixar’s “Inside Out”

A few months ago, I read a book by Ed Catmull called “Creativity, Inc”. It’s a book about building a successful enterprise without sacrificing art. It’s a wonderful book, one that I’ve frequently recommended to colleagues, and I recommend it to you as well.

In “Creativity, Inc”, Catmull relates several stories from the development of Pixar’s best-known films. One such anecdote comes from a development meeting for Pixar’s newest film, “Inside Out”. Several of the Pixar MVPs were in attendance, including directors Brad Bird (“The Incredibles”, “Ratatouille”) and Andrew Stanton (“Finding Nemo”, “WALL-E”). According to Catmull’s book, there was some discussion at one point between Bird and Stanton regarding the themes of the film.

Stanton: This movie is about the inevitability of change– and of growing up.
Bird: A lot of us in this room have not grown up– and I mean that in the best way. The conundrum is how to become mature, how to take on responsibility and become reliable while at the same time preserving your childlike wonder. …Yes, kids have to grow up, but maybe there’s a way to suggest that they could be better off if they held onto some of their childish ideas.

The movies that Pixar makes are generally great. I’ve enjoyed almost every one that I’ve seen. But I’ve also taken an interest in which Pixar films seem to resonate with other folks. That idea espoused above by Bird– the idea that there’s value in childishness, even in adulthood– is evident in some of Pixar’s films, most notably the “Toy Story” films; and as much as I like those movies, they’ve never held the same appeal for me that they have for other folks.

When I went to see a new Pixar film, I went in looking for incredible art and animation, and I always got that. It wasn’t until I saw “Up” in 2009 that I began to wonder whether or not it was fair to expect something more than that. “Up” isn’t my favorite Pixar film– often it feels like two different films mashed together– but the first 10 – 15 minutes of that movie are an absolute knockout, depicting the beginning, middle, and end of a lifelong romance with a degree of honesty that I couldn’t have expected from an animated film at the time.

For better or worse, the opening of “Up” changed my relationship with Pixar’s films. Someone over there gets it, I thought. Someone over at Pixar knows about love, and loss, and is willing to try writing a family film about those experiences. Someone has seen the risk of writing about these subjects for an audience of young folks who may not be able to relate yet, and despite this, has decided to give them all the benefit of the doubt. With the opening of “Up”, Pixar became a studio that I earnestly admired, both because of the immense talent concentrated there and because of the honesty and respect that this movie, “Up”, showed toward its audience.

That’s not to say that Brad Bird is wrong, of course. There are many who enjoy Pixar’s other films, like “Toy Story 3” and “Cars”, in the same way that I enjoyed “Up”: They relate to the idea that childish ideas can be a healthy part of the adult experience, and to them, movies like “Toy Story 3” are the ones that speak with the most sensible voice. Selfishly, though, I had hoped for another Pixar film that spoke to me as clearly and sharply as the opening of “Up”.

That film is in theaters now, and it’s called “Inside Out”. No single scene in it packs the same power as “Up”‘s opening, but it’s far more cohesive, more entertaining, and– I suspect– more relatable. I’ll have more to say about it in the coming days; for now, the movie’s just opened in theaters nationwide, and I can think of no person to whom I would not recommend it.