Inside Out is the story of an 11-year-old girl’s emotions. But almost 80 years ago, Disney had another movie that looked at feelings in a similar way
By Jay Stone
The near universal praise for the Pixar film Inside Out (98 per cent and counting on Rotten Tomatoes, and the demurrals seem pro forma) are partly due to the very audacity of the idea. This is an animated film about the emotions of an 11-year-old girl named Riley: how Joy, Fear, Anger, Disgust and Sadness work together — or sometimes at odds — to form a human personality in flux.
It arrives as a Disney film without a villain and without a princess (although, parenthetically, even the most mundane marketing department — and Disney’s is far from that — should find many opportunities for toys, dolls and other associated merchandise. One fully expects to see hordes of little Angers and Joys trooping to the house next Halloween.)
However, that’s the least of it. The real story is how someone thought of this idea, and then sold it to a big, rich studio that didn’t get big and rich by indulging hopeless whimsy. Pixar films cost tens of millions of dollars and years of effort, and it would have been instructive to have attended the pitch meeting for this one. Writer-director Pete Docter did have a lot of commercial and artistic capital at his disposal, starting with the first Toy Story, but even at that, it seems like an unlikely notion and an even less likely blockbuster.
It would have been amazing even if it wasn’t amazing. In the bad old days of sexual repression, Samuel Johnson wrote, “Sir, a woman’s preaching is like a dog’s walking on his hind legs. It is not done well; but you are surprised to find it done at all.” Inside Out had the makings of such a noble failure, but it succeeds brilliantly, and the depiction of the brain’s furnishings — not just the emotions, but memories portrayed as glowing bowling balls that are stored in endless racks, old TV jingles rubbing elbows, as it were, with the names of presidents — is both lucid and hilarious.
Docter and his team consulted experts about the key emotions of an 11-year-old girl before coming up with their list, and one can imagine a totally different film being made out of the discards: Jealousy, for instance, or Greed. It also reminds us that Inside Out isn’t the first time Disney has wandered into this territory. The 1937 movie Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs also presented a group of animated emotions who weren’t much different: in the intervening years of psychiatric and psychological enlightenment, Happy has turned into Joy and Bashful now occupies the slightly wider districts of Fear. Grumpy — an old man’s emotion and portrayed as such — has returned to the more teen-friendly body of Disgust, although some of his misery has been divided among Disgust and Sadness.
Two other dwarfs, Sneezy and Sleepy, aren’t actually emotions although there’s an argument for Sleepy to make a comeback if the Pixar people are looking for ideas for a sequel about a teenaged Riley. Dopey, the sixth dwarf, is partially represented as one of Inside Out’s “islands of personality:” he’s Goofball, the child who dwells within.
The seven dwarfs weren’t presented as aspects of anything: they were just one-note personalities (a small person presumably having no room for any more than that) with whom Snow White can hide out. But with Inside Out fresh in our minds, we can look back at the earlier film as a deeply closeted metaphor appropriate to the times. Snow can’t find refuge with a hero — the sexual proprieties of the time would have been outraged — but she can room with the mini-figures who might make up such a person: a miner (“hi-ho, hi-ho!”) forever digging for diamonds in the deep pits of, say, the subconscious.
Their leader, if you recall, was the pompous Doc, who might represent the organizing principle of the various traits, the ego to a raggedy collection of instincts. He also serves to remind us of Nelson Algren’s famous advice: “Never play cards with a man called Doc. Never eat at a place called Mom’s. Never sleep with a woman whose troubles are worse than your own.” Those are words that might have come from another character — Wisdom, perhaps — whom you don’t often think of after a Hollywood film.
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