Inside Out did big business this summer alongside a handful of 40th anniversary re-releases of the progenitor of the modern blockbuster, Steven Spielberg's Jaws. Without getting too much into the oft-narrated shifts that the movie industry underwent in the mid-70's (relevant as it might be) it seems useful to reflect on the films that populated the top ten from the “Year of Jaws” in contrast to this summer’s top grossers: Jurassic World, Fast and Furious 7, Pitch Perfect 2, The SpongeBob Movie: Sponge Out of Water, Avengers: Age of Ultron, Fifty Shades of Grey, and Cinderella. In other words, this summer brought new meaning to the metaphor of cinema-as-fast food. If you don't see the similarities between the latest recombinant Taco Bell item and the nutritional/cultural value of Fast and Furious 7, then you really aren't paying attention.
In contrast, the box office frontrunners accompanying Jaws forty years ago include the likes of Hal Ashby's Shampoo, Milos Foreman's adaptation of Ken Kesey’s One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest, and Sidney Lumet's Dog Day Afternoon. Needless to say, these films have a challenging complexity that has endured across the intervening decades, and a maturity that is only magnified when put in relief to the listless screenwriting and relentless marketing of films like Jurassic World.
To gaze at the list of films leading the box office so far in 2015 is to see the reflection of a culture with developmental problems. Of course, American culture and media has had numerous occasions to flaunt its truly immature nature recently, dangerously so. Those who have followed the childish, anti-intellectual responses to everything from the Caitlyn Jenner story to the denials of racism in the Charleston church shootings are possibly coming to similar conclusions recently: that American culture has not only failed to learn from the past, but to simply grow up. In part, the cinema is the place where those attitudes are incubated and debated, where we deepen our emotional connection to each other; not unlike how Riley (Kaitlyn Dias) ultimately develops deeper emotional capacities and wider personal constructs through the narrative arc of Pixar’s Inside Out.
So, what to say of the films dominating the Box Office this year? At least half of it is built from young-adult or children's sources, while the more adult-oriented fare would be hard to make a case for actually having been made with adults in mind. Inside Out is somewhere in the middle of this current top ten, and maybe one of the most intelligent and artful of the bunch. The structure of Inside Out is an exercise in cross-cut action between the inner, psychological world of 11-year old Riley, and her less-colorful, increasingly troubled external journey as an only child having to move from Minnesota to San Francisco. The design of Inside Out is essential to establishing these two separate worlds, at first creating entertaining juxtapositions, but eventually making more elaborate assertions about consciousness, memory, and the nature of the Self more commonly found in the realms of philosophy or neuroscience.
By film’s end, I found the questions raised by Inside Out to be quite engaging, even though enduring the more maudlin aspects of the movie threaten to overwhelm all this by the final reel. The hilarious outro sequence takes us through various depictions of the inner-pilots of minor characters, ultimately landing us inside the mind of a cat. At this point, questioning the problematic though common assumption of a tiny character (or characters) controlling consciousness from behind the third eye (if so, who pilots their consciousness?), this “cat-based” paradigm opened up a whole new imagistic world that jived more with my understanding of the chaotic, mysterious, and pluralistic nature of consciousness, while simultaneously providing the biggest laugh in an already pretty funny film. In any case, the discussions evoked by Inside Out will likely be what sets it apart from a surfeit of young-adult fare, and what distinguishes it from the current trends in mainstream movie consumption that endlessly reward disproportionate preoccupations with nostalgia over any engagement with the world on the other side of the screen.
In this way, Inside Out is the most hopeful of the aforementioned commercial frontrunners. Beyond that, it’s a film that elaborates on the idea of meta-cognition--that is, it offers a way to think about how we think--that seems a novel idea in the world of animated movies, though right in line with the more sophisticated of Pixar films, which present everything from eloquent examinations of criticism (Ratatouille) to questions of post-Earth post-humanism (Wall-E). In fact, I imagine Inside Out will be the only animated film--possibly the only mainstream film--to reference Inductive Reasoning, Critical Thinking, and the traditions of Abstract Art I’m likely to see all year. Warning: Adult themes.