Call me perverse, but when folks praise Pete Docter's Inside Out for originality I want to respond: "what originality?" Characters in one's head representing different emotions? Herman's Head's been cited (not especially good); Woody Allen did a skit in Everything You Always Wanted to Know About Sex (But Were Afraid To Ask) with Tony Randall as the controlling intelligence, Burt Reynolds his communications officer, and Woody Allen in a white sperm suit, charging forward and yelling 'let's make babies!' ('See you at the ovaries!' went the heroic reply). And it seemed as if every other episode of Spongebob Squarepants has either Plankton or Mr. Krabs sinking deep into Spongebob's skull, where various incarnations of the character worked furiously at fulfilling the brain's many functions.
That said, seems to me the real inspiration for this latest Pixar flick isn't some old Fox TV comedy or current Nickelodeon cartoon but Hayao Miyazaki's Spirited Away (2000). Think about it: young girl moves to a different town with her family, the trauma of being uprooted resonating with considerable consequence in her head.
The Pixar folks reportedly based key elements on the work of psychologist Dr. Paul Ekman; I say there's a problem with overly relying on a theory rather than one's imagination when designing an animated film. First it's a theory (admittedly popular) that in a few years could turn out incomplete if not totally wrong. Psychologist Lisa Barrett is already questioning Ekman's concepts; she suggests that emotions aren't hardwired--broken down into five or six universally accepted categories--but assembled piecemeal from memories and one's own perceptions.
Second it's so so so...impersonal. When the folks at Pixar created Riley they seemed to have exercised little creativity in realizing her interior landscape. I mean--clowns unicorns confetti? Marbles toy trains theme parks, a stuffed pink elephant for an imaginary friend? Riley does like ice hockey, a nice little wrinkle in an otherwise featureless personality, but the detail is like an exception to the rule: she's too blandly charming, too tiresomely lively, too I don't know cookie-cutter American to break the standard-issue Pixar mold for young girl protagonists.
Understand they want us to relate to her, that she's meant to represent all children of her age--but that's arguably a lost cause right there. From my experience every child has a distinct inner life that would be both a wonder and a challenge to visualize, a challenge folks at Pixar seem reluctant to address; a more fruitful approach would have been to emphasize her uniqueness, not total lack of.
Look at how Miyazaki depicts Sen's unfolding trauma in Spirited Away: her parents have been turned into pigs, and she's lost in a vast bathhouse visited by radish gods and stink monsters. From the penthouse flies a magnificent white dragon, sent on assignment by a megacephalic woman flanked by three bouncing heads; from a basement tunnel runs a train on submerged rails, carrying ghostly passengers to unknown destinations. Sen like Riley even has an imaginary friend, a masked wraith whose palms sprout gold nuggets and whose belly rumbles with Brobdingnagian appetites--nothing stuffed or pink or benign about him.
Miyazaki didn't bother with psychologists--he modeled his heroine on the daughter of a friend and her peers, his fantastical creatures partly on Japanese mythology, partly on actual animals (the dragon scuttles across walls like a lizard, swallows large pills like a dog), specific episodes from his own memories (the stink monster's visit was based on the director's efforts to help clean a local river where yes he found a bike mired in muck). Much of the film's look was inspired by the mountainous town of Jiufen in Taiwan, from which Miyazaki borrowed not just the bathhouse's architectural design but the mouthwatering foods (a sampling of Japanese and Taiwanese street fare), even the spiky serpentine dragon.
Why use a real location--suitably dressed--for a fantasy film? Because a real location offers an existing level of complexity against which background artists can work, adding or subtracting or modifying detail as needed. A real location gives artists and animators the solid footing necessary to take wild leaps of imagination (Inside Out heeded its Japanese model enough to render San Francisco with care--a care that's lost once we enter Riley's head).* A real location adds to our sense of dislocation, I submit, because it carries with it the conviction of reality a made-up location would not. It shakes up our certainties about this world, points us to the possibility of whole other worlds previously unsuspected.
* (And here we might postulate one requirement for great as opposed to middling fantasy: that the ordinary and the fantastic should be given similar if not equal visual and dramatic weight, rendered with similarly if not equally intricate subtlety).
As for the writing--Pixar scripts are developed carefully for years by committee (with a second committee reviewing the results). A prime principle is to avoid formula, but in my book the Pixar recipe was set long ago: fill the movie with kid-friendly mayhem, yet enough wit to charm adults; tack on a conflict calculated to touch the heart (often with wide swings from a sledgehammer), finish with a feel-good finale that will appeal to all (The protagonist dying? Heaven forbid!).
Miyazaki starts production without a script. "I usually don't have the time," he confesses. He tells his story through hand-drawn storyboards and filmmaking shortly follows, at which point he doesn't even know how the story ends (“It's not me who makes the film. The film makes itself and I have no choice but to follow”). An expensive unusual and I'm guessing nerve-wracking way to work, but when the results are a Spirited Away--
The process is hardly perfect (the consistency of Miyazaki's work has wobbled in recent years), nor should the use of several writers on an actual script be verboten per se (Akira Kurosawa employed a team including himself to develop a script; so does Mike de Leon). But Pixar's greatest successes however original, however desperately they appeal to emotion look and feel suspiciously like smoothly rendered digital product; Miyazaki's worst failures feel like the product of human hands and minds, imaginatively conceived and idiosyncratically put together.**
**(Word has it that the supposedly retired Miyazaki is putting out his first-ever 3D CG film, a short, to which I say if anyone can prove the humanity of digital animation it'll probably be Miyazaki; Pixar's been trying for years with little success.)
First published in Businessworld, 8.20.15