Thinking Through Pixar and Spielberg

Inside Out and Jurassic World fake consciousness.

Pixar indoctrination continues with Inside Out. Watch the pre-programmed media bow down with their usual pledge of allegiance. But the difference this time is that the movie is not so bad. There’s a cartoon-worthy concept in the storyline about what animates a person’s thought processes.

From Riley Anderson’s infancy to the onset of puberty, her emotions are visualized as separate comic entities; we see them work the control console of her mind. Each of her feelings is color-coordinated in the tone of a mood — Joy (pink), Sadness (blue), Fear (purple), Disgust (green), Anger (red). Quasi-human, they interact like a mime troupe, ricocheting in panic when Riley moves with her parents from Minnesota to San Francisco, where, as the friendless new kid in town, she breaks down.

Typical Pixar fantasy gets deconstructed into something fascinating rather than simply cute. At last, the digital-based studio grasps the Surrealist potential in animation. The “what goes on inside someone’s head” premise holds interest for moviegoers who aren’t just babysitting consumers. Riley’s subconscious pixies clarify her character motivation — a new dare for Pixar, which routinely dramatizes inanimate or non-human figures in order to market Disney souvenirs.

Pixar’s 2009 Wall-E (the most uninteresting perverse cartoon ever made) lacked emotional appeal. Intellectually slovenly and repellent, it sold dystopia to kids. But Inside Out is a Pixar movie that an adult might enjoy, like a classic Warner Bros. cartoon. To visualize cogitation, the Pixar technicians (director Pete Docter and his screenwriting team) design a blueprint for creative imagery that makes up for the studio’s formulaic journey-home plot: Joy and Sadness try to revive the disaffected Riley by hopping aboard her train of thought to restore her core memories. They traverse a fantasy land that represents Riley’s Personality, Family, Friendship, Honesty, even a TV studio producing her dreams.

No other Pixar movie has been this amusing or well constructed. Pixar’s dull emphasis on childhood, rather than adult matters, gets a delightful boost with the introduction of Riley’s imaginary friend Bing Bong (part elephant and part cat, with a cotton-candy body). These scenes exhibit art styles that convey Abstract Thought and Non-Objective Fragmentation; there is even a conveyor-belt line of pre-sexual make-believe boyfriends. Although Joy and Sadness both have blue hair, their manic-depression link is not dramatized. Yet, notice Joy’s evanescent pink body with floating, pointillist edges while she holds glowing orbs of Riley’s black-and-white memories, or her ash-and-coal-dark wasteland of forgetfulness that evokes the childhood-oblivion scene from The Long Day Closes. Pixar here reaches its zenith.

But Inside Out is still Pixar. Rather than make animation for adults (by exploring Id, Ego, Superego, or even Conscience), it forsakes grown-up perception and resorts to saccharine childhood complacency. It obliterates the idea of moral responsibility and merely skims the surreal depths of universal experience. Yet whenever Riley is seen as more than a middle-class brat, Inside Out has moments that might make both Walt Disney and Salvador Dali twirl their moustaches.

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By now, everyone should know that the films Steven Spielberg produces but doesn’t direct are rarely any good (his Zemeckis–Gale productions like Back to the Future and Michael Bay’s films are the exceptions). So Jurassic World is as inferior to Jurassic Park (1993) and The Lost World (1997) as one would expect.

It’s a return to B-movie cheapness. The merely functional plot (showing off a revamped amusement park, with bigger, newer dinosaurs), shallow characters (Bryce Dallas Howard as the park’s supervisor flirts with Chris Pratt as its raptor wrangler), and undistinguished imagery repeat the clichés from which Spielberg’s panache had lifted genre filmmaking. Fans of the original films could look forward to this only as a chance to revisit fond memories.

The one surprise is that Jurassic World muddles Spielberg’s cautionary theme. It takes a wartime allegory (the manufacture of genetically modified prehistoric creatures uses technology coveted by a bad-guy military contractor) and confuses it with a satire on immersive entertainment (that dangerous “bigger, newer” folly the first films warned against). Neither idea (dinosaur husbandry vs. corporate profit) is relayed sufficiently by the manipulative chase set-ups, stock characters, and same-old monsters.

This post-9/11 updating might be even more offensive than the too-familiar formula. Spielberg allows some specious ideological speechifying to distract from the lack of originality: “War is a part of nature,” the contractor says, adding, “Progress always wins.” And animal trainer Pratt responds, “Maybe progress shouldn’t win for once.” This pious Hollywood double talk is refrained when a scientist taunts the park entrepreneur for his directive to make the attractions “scarier — ‘cooler,’ I believe your word was.” Shame on Spielberg, letting sarcasm pass as ethics when producing a purely craven enterprise — as if his own previous technological/artistic advances were created independently of military technology.

#related#That “scarier–cooler” jibe isn’t even a dichotomy, given that this is yet another Jurassic sequel. “Scarier–cooler” is the film’s guiding principle — as it also is in Fury Road’s sadistic jamboree — and this mainstream/hipster commercialism has ruined film audiences. They don’t appreciate Spielberg’s elegance in the earlier Jurassic films (the visual wit of the T-Rex toying with passengers in a car like game-board figures, or Julianne Moore lying against a slowly cracking windshield), and they cannot distinguish it from George Miller’s sledgehammer pyrotechnics. Spielberg’s expressive qualities no longer matter; only his shock effects.

Director Colin Trevorrow is no Spielberg, nor can he match Rupert Wyatt’s flair in Rise of the Planet of the Apes. The attack of the pterodactyls evokes Hitchcock’s The Birds, amping grisly violence, but with none of Hitchcock’s poetry. To call Jurassic World a “fantasy” is overreaching. It’s just product, with “stars” Howard and Pratt, who are less believable than the park’s genetically modified dinos. Trevorrow’s artificial sense of human endangerment (which defines Jurassic World as a summer blockbuster) is as disingenuous as the film’s incessant product placements. In Hollywood, that’s all “immersive” really means.

Armond White, a culture critic, writes about movies for National Review and is the author of New Position: The Prince Chronicles. His new book, Make Spielberg Great Again: The Steven Spielberg Chronicles, is available at Amazon.


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