Inside Out (Pete Docter and Ronnie Del Carmen, 2015), Pixar’s film about the structure and inner workings of a preteen girl’s mind, represents the human brain as a cross between a factory and an amusement park. The feature’s mismatched protagonist duo, Joy and Sadness, find themselves stranded inside this landscape and forced to navigate its various sections in order to return to Headquarters (the room from which they control the girl Riley’s emotional responses) as quickly as possible. In one scene, Bing Bong – Riley’s forgotten childhood imaginary friend – decides to help them by taking them on a shortcut through a tunnel-like space that represents abstract thought.
What ensues is one of Pixar’s most conceptually self-reflexive episodes. From the very beginning, abstract thought is designated as a danger zone. Above the door leading into it, a warning sign reads “Danger. Keep Out!” Sadness reacts to Bing Bong’s suggestion to go through there with immediate concern, telling Joy that she has “read about this place in the manual. We shouldn’t go in there.” “There” turns out to be a vast, empty, seemingly endless white space where the rules of gravity do not apply, as demonstrated by a myriad geometric structures hovering in the air. This is unusual for Pixar or any other commercial American animated feature and is therefore implicitly coded as otherworldly and unsettling due to its lack of definition and concrete detail.
Abstract thought is not simply a spooky place, however. It quickly transforms into an active physical threat to the characters’ bodily integrity. Joy, Sadness, and Bing Bong undergo several rapid changes in visual design. First, they transform into Picasso versions of themselves, all angular shapes and misaligned facial features (a transformation which, as Sadness explains, is meant to depict nonobjective fragmentation). Then, they literally fall apart into pieces (deconstruction). At the third stage, the white space suddenly squashes them, turning them into two-dimensional, stylized versions of themselves. Finally, right before they manage to escape, all three characters are reduced to single-colored shapes (a yellow star and two blobs, blue and pink). In that sense, abstract thought is portrayed as a destructive, uncontrollable, and terrifying force.
The terms in which the characters verbalize the threat of abstraction holds the key to Pixar’s approach to animation. Bing Bong shouts that he is lacking depth. Joy laments her two-dimensionality. Sadness warns that they need to get out of there “before [they’re] nothing but shape and color.” As it turns out, what is dangerous and scary about Abstract Thought is abstraction itself. In the Pixar universe, straying away from the reassuring familiarity of three-dimensional physical reality (however creatively augmented by stylization and caricature it may be) is unthinkable and self-destructive. It is an unwarranted risk. It is aesthetic suicide – not to mention a marketing one (flat, cubist figurines rarely make it onto the toy bestseller list). Abstraction is the antithesis to Pixar’s creative philosophy. As Sadness points out, the Pixar manual advises against going there. In Pixar – and American studio animation at large – abstraction remains off limits, while two-dimensionality is increasingly unwanted and dangerous.
Mihaela Mihailova is a PhD candidate in the joint Film and Media Studies and Slavic Languages and Literatures program at Yale University. Her research interests include animation, Film and Media theory, early Soviet cinema, contemporary Eastern European cinema, video games, and comics. She has published articles in animation: an interdisciplinary journal, Studies in Russian and Soviet Cinema, Post Script: Essays in Film and the Humanities, and Kino Kultura. Her piece “Frame-Shot: Vertov’s Ideologies of Animation” (co-written with John MacKay) is included in Animating Film Theory (ed. Karen Beckman). Her translation of Sergei Tretyakov’s “The Industry Production Screenplay” appears in Cinema Journal 51.4 (2012). Her essay “Latvian Animation: Landscapes of Resistance” is in Animated Landscapes: History, Form, and Function (ed. Chris Pallant). (2015)