Richard J. Leskosky: Mental processes as characters nothing new

Richard J. Leskosky: Mental processes as characters nothing new

After four years in which Pixar Animation Studios had only one nominee for Best Animated Feature (2012's "Brave," which actually did win but nonetheless did not carry the emotional impact of the most memorable Pixar films), the studio has produced an Oscar-worthy film that is literally emotionally charged. That's because the film's main characters for the most part are personified emotions (Joy, Sadness, Disgust, Fear and Anger) in the head of 11-year-old Riley.

Riley was happy in Minnesota playing hockey with her friends, but then her parents moved to San Francisco for her father's business, and she began to feel alienated and depressed. And in the Headquarters in her head, Joy, Sadness, Disgust, Fear and Anger suddenly have unexpected new situations to deal with.

"Inside Out" has been receiving glowing reviews from critics; it's even been called "groundbreaking" for its treatment of sadness and depression. But some writers have also noted that the early 1990s Fox TV sitcom "Herman's Head" used the same idea of personified mental functions.

Herman's psyche was populated by four characters: Angel (sensitivity), Animal (basic — and base — instincts), Wimp (anxiety) and Genius (intelligence).

So the two mental crews do not really align with each other, and Herman's crew does not seem to exercise the same amount of control as Riley's. Her crew even has a command center with buttons to push and levers to pull, whereas his just had a cluttered apartment where they hung out.

But Walt Disney Studio precursors of "Inside Out" date back much further than "Herman's Head" — about 80 years, in fact. (Disney is Pixar's parent company and distributes the film.)

Many Disney theatrical cartoons displayed moral components not evident in most other companies' cartoons. Moral dilemmas sometimes even took their own physical form in the shapes of an angel and a devil. (Angel and devil advisers showed up occasionally in cartoons from other studios, but the moral high road always seemed to belong to the Disney studio.)

In "Mickey's Pal Pluto" (1933), Pluto rescues a bag of kittens from drowning but then gets jealous when Mickey and Minnie pay more attention to the kittens and the rambunctious felines take over Pluto's bed and food bowl. A tiny canine devil pops up to urge Pluto to punish the little cats, while a small doggie angel materializes to counsel forgiveness and kindness.

The 1933 cartoon was made in black and white (not inappropriate for a moral tale, actually). Disney remade it in color in 1941 as "Lend a Paw," and that version won an Oscar for Best Animated Short.

In "Donald's Better Self" (1938), angel and devil show up as Donald Duck doubles but with halo and horns, respectively. At issue is whether Donald will play hooky and try smoking a corncob pipe. Spoiler alert: He does, but goodness triumphs in the end. Disney reused the angel and devil footage, but with a more adult Donald, in "Donald's Decision" (1942). The film was made for the National Film Board of Canada to promote the purchase of War Savings Certificates (Donald's dilemma was whether to buy certificates or squander his money on frivolous things).

In 1943, Disney used Donald to encourage Americans to pay their income taxes (which had just increased substantially to pay for the country's entry into the war). A narrator explains that within the mind of the average worker (Donald) exist two separate and opposing personalities (both variations on Donald's general appearance). The first is the Thrifty who advocates saving to pay taxes to finance the war; he's dressed as a Scotsman and is the precursor of the Scrooge McDuck character. The second is the Spendthrift; he wears a zoot suit, and as the cartoon progresses, he displays more and more swastika-themed accessories as well as a Hitler moustache and hairdo.

The most famous externalized mental feature is Pinocchio's official conscience, Jiminy Cricket, who constantly tries to get the puppet to do the right thing in "Pinocchio" (1940).

Jiminy popped up in other Disney films and most pertinently in the "I'm No Fool" series of six safety films (1956-57 with a final entry in 1973). In each, Jiminy would explain the right and wrong ways to ride a bicycle, swim, cross the street, illustrated by scenes starring "you" and "a fool." (Spoiler alert: You have fun in a safe manner; the fool often does not survive.)

These were all external representations of internal states, though.

In one of Disney's four great propaganda shorts of 1943, "Reason and Emotion," however, the title "characters" are shown actually inside the human head piloting the individual with a steering wheel, gear shift and pedals.

Emotion wears a caveman's leopard skin and a five o'clock shadow, while Reason dresses like a minor bureaucrat with glasses and thinning hair. I'm not exactly sure what the female Emotion is supposed to resemble, but she seems to be wearing a slip and is consumed with food; the female Reason looks like the 1940s stereotype of a teacher or a librarian (glasses, sensible shoes and hat).

After showing how these two work together normally in everyday life (and what happens when Emotion sometimes gets the upper hand), the film looks into the head of a typical German (where things are no longer normal) and explains how Hitler plays on his emotions in order to control him. Emotion towers over Reason, dons a helmet, puts Reason in a concentration camp and goosesteps around it armed with a rifle.

Disney's other three propaganda shorts that year were "Der Fuehrer's Face," "Education for Death" and "Chicken Little." "Der Fuehrer's Face" won an Oscar for Best Animated Short of 1942 (though its official release date was Jan. 1, 1943). "Reason and Emotion" received a 1943 Oscar nomination.

Again, the mental crew in "Reason and Emotion" does not correspond with the personified emotions in "Inside Out" (there is no Reason in the feature film, and Emotion is separated into seven characters), but it nonetheless seems reasonable to consider it a precursor.

Pixar animators are steeped in the classic Disney films, so there may well have been some sort of at least unconscious influence here.

In any case, turning mental processes into actual characters on the screen is a longstanding, respected tradition in the Disney and now Pixar dynasty — one that results in superior films.

Richard J. Leskosky taught media and cinema studies at the University of Illinois and has reviewed films for more than 30 years. He can be contacted at filmcritic@comcast.net.

Topics (1):Film
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