onsdag 16 september 2015

The hard sells of Pixar

Ha - at least that's one more New Year's resolution kept. I somehow missed watching Cinderella in the cinema (I caught it later on DVD - sweet, but not essential viewing), but this time around I managed to fit in a cinema visit for Inside Out (and in the original English too), the latest Pixar film. And I think it's their best yet.

I've already confessed my devotion to Disney, or its animation studio at least. My feelings for Pixar, first a partner to and now a part of the Disney empire, are a little less gooey. I admire the Pixar people tremendously: their films are intelligent and masterfully crafted. But I'm seldom so completely taken in by a Pixar film as I am by "pure Disney" products with their extra spoonfuls of sugar. This is because Pixar's films, clever, funny and often moving (the prologue to Up is hyped for a reason) though they are, can sometimes peddle disconcerting messages.

Take the Toy Story trilogy, doing it best to reinforce the needless guilt one feels towards toys one has abandoned. The fears that the films' protagonists show of being replaced, forgotten or thrown away are imaginatively handled - but to what purpose, exactly? Even adults have a hard time coming to terms with the fact that their old beloved toys are not, in fact, alive and do not have feelings to hurt - and films like Toy Story 1-3 aren't helping. I can only hope that kids are more sensible, and not too shaken up by scenarios where a teddy bear lost during an outing and then replaced is so traumatised he turns into a psycho.

Then there's Finding Nemo, where the message is that parents should not be too overprotective towards their children, but should allow them to have adventures. But overprotectiveness isn't such a grievous fault as all that, is it? What's more, it's a sign of love. Is it necessary to guilt-trip loving parents and to hint that they may lose their offsprings' affection if they hold on too hard? And what about The Incredibles? There were critics who raved about this film's "shameless elitism" and found it very refreshing. But it depends on what you mean by elitism, doesn't it? The Incredibles encourages the use of superpowers if you've got them - except in the real world, people don't have superpowers. It doesn't work as a parable to normal talents either: the most talented person in the film is the villain, who attains superpowers through using inventions perfected by hard work and perseverance (and a lot of killing). Yet he and his "fake" superpowers are considered lesser than the "real" superheroes (all right, partly because he puts the teddy bear in the shade when it comes to psychopathic behaviour). This isn't meritocratic elitism - it's aristocratic elitism. If you weren't born a superhero, you shouldn't get ideas above your station.

I remember my amusement when various intellectuals procaimed how much better and more "edgy" the animated film Antz (DreamWorks) was compared to A Bug's Life (Pixar). Well yes, if you think a strong individualistic message is "edgy", then Antz is certainly edgier. But if you're looking for revolutionary fervour, look no further than the oppressed masses of ants in A Bug's Life rising up collectively against the exploitative grasshoppers. I'd have thought this would be right up the street of those commentators who routinely sneer at anything associated with Disney. For myself, though I've seen and enjoyed A Bug's Life often (I've only seen Antz once), I feel a twinge of unease when Flik pronounces with great emphasis that "ants are not meant to serve grasshoppers". Um... what's he implying, exactly?

The message of Inside Out is a characteristically hard sell, but this time I buy it. The film takes place inside the mind of Riley, an eleven-year-old girl, where her feelings see to the day-to-day-running of things under the management of the relentlessly upbeat Joy. The other feelings personalised in Riley's head are Sadness, Disgust, Anger and Fear. Joy can just about see the point of the other feelings, except Sadness. The film sets out to show her - as well as the viewers - that sadness has just as worthwhile a part to play in a person's life as joy.

This is very skilfully done, and the packaging is breathtaking. The different parts of Riley's mind - long-term memory, imagination, abstract thought, dreams, the subconscious "where all the troublemakers end up" etc. - are depicted with all the inventiveness you expect from such a setting. There is much attention to detail, where you see the interplay between what goes on inside Riley's mind and outside in her surroundings. For instance, I liked the scene where Disgust, Fear and Anger frantically try "to be Joy" in her absence, with the effect that Riley's answers to her parents' questioning - which look upbeat enough on paper - come across as sarcastic, wary and defensive respectively.

It's imaginative, brainy, well-scripted, visually stunning entertainment - and it almost convinced me that sadness is as important as joy.