I wonder if the creators at Pixar are unconsciously drawn to subvert the prescribed messages they are surely required to put out. I ask this out of logic: Pixar employees show too much intelligence, too much subversive intelligence, that always can be relied upon to titillate the adult in us even as we accept their mostly requiting us to remember our inner child, to rest without severe qualms if they are requited to a company which overall nullifies itself as any strong nudge for change. I also ask this out of evidence: why else construct this movie, with inside prompters who delight when their subject, eleven-year-old Riley, resounds the same old familiar behavioural notes — yay, once again it’s happy Riley! hockey Riley! goof-ball Riley! — so that it recalls the struggle out of The Truman Show, where as we know exasperation at unfamiliar initiative was not warranted, but rather something that shows up the controllers' overall intention to keep their subject mirroring their own expectations and needs?
We are supposed to understand the struggle of the film to be about preventing a big move from a locale where life can be imagined as not changing much — Minnesota — to one where it’ll always be about being expected to keep up … be as well at the forefront of urban life and societal change — progressive, urban San Fransisco — from momentarily destabilizing Riley so much she goes badly awry, incurs inner psychic damage and retardation that could perhaps permanently slow and inhibit her. Her inner emotional directors — the-clearly-adult-and-so-not-really-part-of-her “Joy,” “Sadness,” “Fear,” “Anger,” and “Disgust” — are in a frantic effort to save her from collapse: great, conglomerate, already well-developed and distinctive “cities” of accrued experiences, are actually collapsing, leaving the possibility that when Riley finally girds herself for the new environment, she’ll do so as just that, that massively angry, destructive energy, forlorn anything else — and so now, the makings of a psychopath?
But it appears to me that whether consciously or not, the creators of this film allow for a very subversive reading of what actually underlies all this massive, angry change in Riley’s psyche, so that it’s not fear and disorientation that prompts it but sudden realization, astonishingly astute, clear awareness. When Riley’s family pulls up to their new home, there’s a weird sense that we’re all being encouraged to waylay an awareness that surely draws on us as we catch sight of the breadth of where her new life is taking her, as if, if we were to hold onto this awareness consciously, we couldn’t as easily partake in this adventure as about saving Riley’s psyche but perhaps more as the scabrous one of adult, conspiratorial annihilation of a child’s effort at real autonomy. We’re being directed to see this new home as modest and a bit decrepit — a lonely, stark, bare environment for the new arrivals. Yet what it is to anyone of adult awareness is mostly clear demarcation that Riley is being scooped along with the rest of her family along the route of gentrification: small and compact though it is, in San Francisco its squatness emphasizes rather than shields its being a million dollar home, scrunched in with all the other families that will produce none other than those of the professional class. The memories that were packed into Minnesota, and which were perfect for an adult’s imagining of the perfect child in early life, are going to met with those that match the image of the perfect child in adolescence and early adulthood: first-goal Riley! will eventually become first-date Riley! first straight-A report card Riley! first Ivy-League college acceptance Riley! first opportune internship Riley! — first-on-the-road-to-satisfactorily-possessing-every-marker-of-the-new-elite Riley!
Dawned on us momentarily is the awareness that for this family, Minnesota was meant to be understood as shed because it didn’t look good on the resume past a certain point. Every urban sophisticate is willing to go along with imagining the perfect childhood as being farm cow-laden, and thus, okay, Minnesota. So loudly do liberals cheer women’s sports teams now, her early love of hockey, as well, needn’t at all make her seem doomed to sports and hockey boyfriends and maybe teen pregnancies, but much more to emphasize her as being at the core a constituent of the times … as someone who’ll feel it natural to incur personal growth in fields a regressive society had assumed no woman, no progressive, could get past the wear required just to get within their gates to much-all transform what constitutes it within. But adolescence absent an environment that would insist ingesting distinctions from the rest of cow-fat, cow-brained rest of America — like San Francisco is going to amply do, with its subscribing every slice of pizza as beholden to broccoli rather than pepperoni, and whatnot — counts against you immediately. The competitive game of life where one becomes enshrined as a prince or discounted as hardly worth a pittance is now on, and years are being lost where you essentially ossified when you could have become appropriately alien to the rest of deservedly-languishing, hopefully soon irrelevant, slovenly, stupid America.
Subsequent to registering that we may be being aggressively misdirected — susceptible to some controller’s bullying promptings, ourselves — we may not be as likely to just accede to seeing Riley as distraught only because reliable support columns are not available to her, but rather to think more on the suggestions, hints, apparently coincidental connections, the film makes but which seem planted in such a way they seem innocuous, innocent, spared … as something that can readily be discounted so they’ll pass sensor' examination. One such is the coinciding of Riley's joyful effort to dress up her completely bare room in her imagination, beholden only as it is now to dust, dirt and a dead rat as “filler,” with her mother approaching her thereafter to tell her how much they depend on her never-failing joy and optimism to counter their own distress and to keep their family unit functional. If we were dawdling along the road the film has signalled it is perhaps compelled to usher us along, the mother approaching her here to inadvertently ask her to dress up an actually very different reality — she is actually hopelessly distraught — for something false, isn't much worth thinking about: just being shorn familiar anchors was going to dislodge her mind and disturb her into beckoning truancy, and besides, her mother was clearly only momentarily dislodged from registering Riley properly. But something-more-true that we may be being signalled to consider, adding emotion and affect — horror — to a scene the creators were conspicuously cautious to abandon it of, is the possibility that she is being asked to dress up her new life in San Fransisco in no different a fashion that she was required to in Minnesota. What the move to San Francisco offered insight into is what will always be expected to underlay how Riley constitutes her relationship to the world — above all, keep it commensurate with her parents’ needs; ease their distress. Her mother casually obliged her along the path she blithely expected she had been built to follow, but at a moment when Riley could register it as the way she was expected to subvert every individual effort to constitute herself in a freshly opened up world.
Riley's inner psyche ends up being one of awesome apocalyptic collapse, as the carefully curated world all her inner directors were so proud of begins to sunder completely. This sundering is supposed to have something to do with these directors themselves — Sadness and Anger are targeted as corrupting things: what's happening, we're being reassured, is still under their control — but clearly this awesome oblivion is felt to be something completely apart from any of these cutesy, neutered — individualized only in the way any corporation would allow — minions. Riley looks to be withdrawing Joy, the emotion most fundamentally entwined through all of her core memories and aspects of self, from her psychic makeup. Overtly this is because she is just so unfathomably sad, and so is recklessly polluting all her previous experiences with affect from her current despondency. But her, for example, not lacking her previous polish but almost losing the ability to stickhandle, reads not of a sullen mind but one who in extricating all falsity has almost permanently unstrapped familiar muscular actions of all tendon support. All that was in error lent out, is in the process of being withdrawn. Not pollution, but discombobulation of corrupt reality, through angry umbrage and driven revolution.
Joy fights back, and goes about on a mission to prevent Riley from being detached from her control. But as she goes about on her travels within the brain, ostensibly a Rudolph or a Dorothy on a querulous mission in a strange landscape, what is mostly conveyed is just how abated of all disturbance and fright the landscape she has preferred to clothe herself within is. At times it’s slightly odd, disorienting, but anything she stumbles upon that one might think would get defined as registering real trauma in Riley’s life, gets encountered as if it was mundane, scrubbed of being worth more than the most generic of reflections. The long-lost imagined friend she rediscovers is dressed of cozy childhood memories — candy cane fluff and dolphins and such — which may have been out of reasons of succour, but if so from wounds every child is susceptible too ... every household can get lonely sometimes, and so every child might for a short while need to frame a “friend” out of everything they otherwise love most. The monster in her subconscious is discovered as a giant clown, but conveys mostly every child’s ostensible susceptibility to at least one fright from something hard to account for in their encounters with a new world, whether it be the awful alienness of spiders, the disturbing disorientation of heights, or the ghastly smiles and painted faces of the stuffed toy clown, which for some reason is expected to be as loved by the child as the clearly snuggle-worthy stuffed bear is.
Joy experiences real fright when she trespasses into an area that seems almost as if its lead-in to the unaccountable territory of monstrous, great expanse that can swallow up whole island cities of arranged experience, that is coming to seem the key constituent of Riley’s current temper — where she is locating herself now. Finding herself in a great pit where all abandoned, life-stripped memories lie — colour-dead, opaque ball-corpses —Joy resorts to magical thinking in hope to get out. To buttress this primitivist regression, is another: it seems the imaginary friend is adding too much weight to get their magic sleigh over the slope, and so—. Though it doesn’t play out this way, and it’s actually an accident that the imaginary friend falls off the sled into the dissolving pit, anyone observing Joy's frantic mood would know she was in the mood to do … anything, including sacrifice; and further might be beginning to suspect that the reason she has for long been in charge of Riley is because Riley planted her there to palliate a version of this oblivion she experienced at the beginning of her life, and so sacrifice of something innocent and beautiful — this innocent friend; Riley’s right to shape life to suit her own needs rather than her parents’ — is basically the ground out of which she grew, and her thorough modus operandi.
Concomitant of Joy's despair before this chilly landscape is Riley’s facing off with her mother. Though the father in the film has been discounted as any source of true terror for Riley — his working himself to escalate and do something drastic, put his foot down! is meant to show his outer fury as about as discountable as are the comic cartoon personalities in the control room of his head — the mother who almost caught her daughter stealing her credit card from her purse is as unlikely to invite a belittling cartoon-show of the workings going on currently in her head as would a true torturer invite your gallow humour. If Riley had been caught crossing her to this degree, her mother would have been bent out of shape in a way this film hasn’t the resources to try and contain — the point of view of the eyes that almost espied Riley’s great trespass, were the squinted eyes of a croc toward a brave but vastly less well-planted mam’ strayed in her path.
So here is the one and only terror the film would seem shy to dare doing any patchings to; and if we twin her mother being shown as quite terrifying with her being being hinted at as the source of how Riley constitutes herself, then Joy once again being at the helm of Riley’s life would spell her living a quiescent life at its base motivated by fear. Riley making San Francisco an expansion of who she already was, someone possessed of the same old identify markers but now expanded and elaborated, is Riley as Truman from the Truman Show experiencing even the like of ostensibly inevitably unpredictable and rocky life stages as puberty in such a way that it actually becomes hard to reckon how it got its reputation for wild unpredictability in the first place — it’ll be stripped of anything so jagged, so abrasive, it can’t be readily taken and discounted as just stage-of-life drama. It’s Riley ding-a-linging all the bells that trigger choruses of respondent joy in others, but which would leave her all her life suspecting she was on a false trail, and perhaps, despite all the markers informing her of how profoundly accomplished she is, actually essentially empty.
But we needn’t stray down that path where Riley, through all her picture-perfect subsequent life moments, becomes worthy of becoming discounted as just one of the many “excellent sheep” in our ivy league universities that have been forestalled at every step any chance to discover their own wishes and requite the rest of reluctant society to them, because just as we were prompted to correct what a move to San Fransisco from Minnesota actually would foretell for the family, we’re lead to want to correct how what we saw happening to the landscape inside Riley's head would actually argue her independent journey was taking her towards.
The film ostensibly would have us take her journey as regressive; she is clinging back, through a great act of truancy, to Minnesota for some kind of reassuring balm, a catastrophe given all the joy and self-development San Francisco will offer her if only she can get past this first few moments of chaos without incurring some difficult-to-remedy deep inward retreat. But visually we have seen that what Riley has been up to is obliterating every single core memory that constituted her existence of Minnesota, so whatever journey she is on, the one thing it feels near blasphemous to suggest it is is this one. The film doesn’t spell it out for us, perhaps because this grand presentation of a fresh life where parents have been defied and others’ insistent wishes for you have been discarded, doesn’t match with the crowd-pleasing, crowd-owned Pixar’s inextricable mission, but the territory headed for here for this elevn-year-old is very close to that delineated for the twelve-year-old in a film by a hipster auteur that just has to be held close to the heart of a huge lot of the young, creative phantasm-creators helmed at Pixar — Wes Anderson.
Truant Riley, who has angrily unspooled out of her head every accomplishment that had made her her parents’ reliable joy, and who has just gotten past her mom as guard at the gate, bears some resemblance to Suzy out of Moonlight Kingdom. Heading out that way, it is true, could equally mean for her the catastrophe that could easily have followed Suzy and Sam’s self-contrived foray. But out of it might have come a core memory just as immune to parental dishevelment, and from which a distinctive new person might be framed that could be part of breaching though an age where no one is expected to escape the humiliation of having to subscribe themselves to a host that wants more than anything for you to have to have to oblige. The clever, the brilliant, the especially promising, all in a sense wiped out, as they get whirlpooled into society’s predominant preference for perennial following through on requisite visits … for stagnancy.