When Inside Out had its premiere at Cannes a month ago to an enthusiastic reception by the American and French press, it was in the spirit of reunion and renewal: Pixar was back and reinvigorated.
It is Pixar's first film shown in Cannes since Up, also directed by Pete Docter, which was also the company's last major artistic triumph. Released in 2009, Up was the punctuation to one of the great hot streaks in movie history: Ten films, including Toy Story (1995), Monsters, Inc. (2001), Finding Nemo (2003), The Incredibles (2004), Ratatouille (2007) and WALL-E (2008), that were of consistently high quality – and also earned $8.6-billion (U.S.) worldwide grosses.
Pixar, a company associated with George Lucas and Steve Jobs, the incarnation of late-twentieth-century California technical genius, began to look ordinary. In the past few years, there was increasing grumbling that John Lasseter, chief creative officer of both Pixar and Walt Disney Animation Studios, was paying more attention to Disney bosses than his old company. In 2013, Pixar laid off about 5 per cent of its 1,200-person work force and 2014 saw no new Pixar film at all. Meanwhile, Disney Animation experienced a revival with two major hits, Frozen (2013) and Big Hero 6 (2014).
At Cannes, Lasseter was back to reassure – and reminisce. He used the occasion of the Inside Out press conference to declare the voice cast (Amy Poehler, Phyllis Smith, Bill Hader, Lewis Black and Mindy Kaling) one of the best in Pixar history. In a separate Cannes event, he introduced previews of upcoming Pixar films – including The Good Dinosaur (due in November), Finding Dory (summer of 2016), Toy Story 4 (summer 2017) – and to remind people how much Pixar has already changed the film world.
When he was a student at California Institute of the Arts in the late-seventies, Lasseter said, "animation was nearly dead." There was a new release every four or five years of indifferent quality. The studios had sold their animated catalogues to television in the sixties, and TV had relegated cartoons to Saturday morning and after-school slots.
"Walt Disney never made movies for kids. The great Chuck Jones made movies for adult to be released in theatres in front of Warner Bros. films."
Lasseter and his CalArts friends loved cartoons, but he was also inspired by the revolution of filmmaking in the seventies – Francis Ford Coppola, Lucas, Steven Spielberg and Martin Scorsese – and wanted to bring the same sensibility to animation.
"We never stopped that belief that animation can be and should be for everyone, and entertain audiences around the world with great stories."
Lasseter reminded the press audience that Toy Story, the first entirely CGI feature movie, was released 20 years ago this November. When Toy Story became the year's highest-grossing domestic film and earned almost universal critical acclaim, said Lasseter, "it proved that it was not about the technology; it was about the storytelling."
"It's fascinating when a thing is done with a new technology, if it's done right, how it will change everything overnight. Since Toy Story was the first one and people loved it, it opened the doors for studios all over the world. We did a recent count. There has been over 250 CGI movies in the past 20 years and I feel very proud of that fact."
Resilience, comebacks, never say die: These are both the subject of Pixar stories and, the story of Pixar itself. Roll back another decade to 1985, and you'd see the other side of Pixar: The computer division of Lucas's Industrial Light and Magic empire, about 40 employees, developing hardware for advanced animation work, was essentially a bust. Lucas was anxious to unload it: General Motors and Hallmark, the card company, both turned it down, which may be a loss to cars and greeting cards, though a boon to the movies.
Jobs, who had been recently ousted from Apple, agreed to pick it up for $5-million. As David Price wrote in his history of the company, The Pixar Touch: The Making of a Company, "… one of the curious aspects of Pixar's story is that each of its leaders was, by conventional standards, a failure at the time he came onto the scene." That included Lasseter (who had been fired by Disney), Jobs, Alvy Ray Smith (let go from Xerox's famous Palo Alto Research Center) and pioneering 3-D graphics computer scientist Edwin Catmull, who took what he considered to be a dead-end job in the private sector after he had been turned down for a teaching position.
Pixar's movies have never shied away from the dark side. Abandonment in Toy Story, death in Up, an environmental apocalypse in WALL-E, the threat of a grisly assembly-line incineration in Toy Story 3.
The source of despair in Inside Out is less exotic. Director-writer Docter says the story was partly inspired by watching the changes in his own 11-year-old daughter, Elie (she voiced the character of the young Ellie Fredricksen in Up), who went from a confident kid to a self-doubting adolescent. It brought back his own awkward adolescence. (Elie is 16 now, and reportedly doing fine.)
At its most literal level, the film is an allegory of childhood depression: When Riley suffers the shock of moving to a new home, Joy and Sadness get locked out of the Space Needle-like control centre: Fear, Disgust and Anger take over. Her memories are contaminated and the islands of her "core memories" that make up her personality begin to disintegrate. Like all Pixar stories, it's ultimately a rescue story.
While Inside Out has a personal connection, it also reflects the science-geek sensibility that runs through much of Pixar's history. The idea of basic emotions reflects the ideas of psychologist Paul Ekman, whose ability to "read faces" was featured in a New Yorker article by Malcolm Gladwell, and inspired the Fox TV series Lie to Me.
"We got to know Paul back on Toy Story when we were working on facial expressions," said Docter. "He had done some great pioneering work on micro-
expressions. But he also had a lot of great information about emotions and what their jobs are."
Added producer Jonas Rivera: "The simple idea is that the emotions have a job, that there's a reason you have fear, anger and joy. They all have a specific effort. That really helped the writing effort: That the emotions each have a job, and they have a professional shorthand together."
For fans of great movies without an age barrier, Inside Out offers hope that everyone is back in their right job at the Pixar control tower. And perhaps Pixar: the Sequel, might even be as good as the first time around.