How a Defunct Disney World Attraction Inspired Pixar’s ‘Inside Out’
Pete Docter’s Inside Out is based around a high concept executed to perfection. The mind is a control room operated by your emotions, who guide and protect you through every moment of every day. Memories are stored in a vast warehouse. Dreams are cooked up in a movie studio. Dangerous areas, like abstract thought, are locked away behind steel doors. Pixar, no stranger to anthropomorphizing all manner of animals and inanimate objects, have taken things a step further. They’ve made the inner workings of the human mind into characters.
But Inside Out isn’t the first Disney project to tackle this concept and Docter himself knows this. Several decades ago, the Inside Out director worked on the defunct Walt Disney World attraction Cranium Command, which tackles a very similar concept with very different results. Housed in the currently shuttered Wonders of Life pavilion in the Future World section of the Epcot theme park, Cranium Command was a theater show that combined animatronics, film, and animation to literally place the audience inside the human brain of a 12 year old.
The animated pre-show sets the stage: you are trainees for the Cranium Command, an organization that pilots human brains and helps keep human bodies functioning and safe. Your all-shouting superior officer is General Knowledge (ha), who doesn’t take too kindly to a diminutive recruit named Buzzy and assigns him to the toughest brain of them all: a 12-year-old boy. From there, the audience entered a theater, where the stage represented the interior of the brain, complete with two large circular screens representing the eyes. Buzzy himself is an audio animatronic character, directing the action in person. His crew, consisting of characters like Right Brain, Left Brain, Stomach, and so on, appear on various video screens when it’s there turn to chime in.
Since Cranium Command was a product of the late ‘80s, the cast of characters is portrayed by eclectic mixture of of actors and comics. Charles Grodin is the buttoned-down Left Brain while Jon Lovitz is the excitable Right Brain. Bobcat Goldthwait shrieks and screams as Adrenal Gland. George Wendt is, of course, Stomach. In the most dated choice, Kevin Nealon and Dana Carvey play Left Ventricle and Right Ventricle as Hans and Franz (you can see why this attraction was starting to feel a little creaky when it finally shut its doors in 2007).
Both Cranium Command and Inside Out depict the brain as a complex command center where abstracted versions of human thought and biology run the show and both are set within the mind of a pre-pubescent kid. Perhaps most importantly, both ultimately take a story that is small and personal (a difficult move to a new city in Inside Out, a hectic day at school in Cranium Command) and blow them into massive adventures. On the outside, the drama is low key. On the inside, it’s a massive adventure with life or death consequences.
Docter is credited as an animator of the Cranium Command cartoon pre-show and since the attraction opened in Epcot in 1989, it is entirely possible that this was one of his final jobs before he joined Pixar. If there is any of Docter’s personal touch evident in Cranium Command’s animation, it is hard to detect. The pre-show feels like Disney Animation’s house style at the time.
While Docter surely had no actual involvement in crafting Cranium Command’s story, it’s hard to imagine his experience working on the attraction not leaving a lasting impression on him. Docter told the Disney Insider blog, “It was only months [after starting production on Inside Out] that I realized, Hey, this is kind of close to Cranium Command [...] We were really pushing to get away from the physical.”
It’s notable that Inside Out’s Headquarters is all about putting a face on truly abstract concepts. The movie is about the mysteries of the mind and the complexity of emotions. It delves into the unknowable and grapples with concepts of psychology that are tough to comprehend. In contrast, the command center of Cranium Command is purely biological. With the exception of Buzzy, who is essentially a stand-in for the brain itself, the crew of this command room are parts of the body that can be understood after reading a science text book. As Cranium Command takes us through a stressful day in the life a of young boy, Right Brain and Left Brain clash on how to approach certain situations. Adrenal Gland shouts when things get intense. Right Ventricle and Left Ventricle offer updates from the heart whenever things get physical. And, of course, Stomach keeps on demanding food.
Both projects ultimately reach the same conclusion: the disparate parts of you have to work as a unit if you’re going to get through life. This revelation in Inside Out is cathartic, bound to draw tears out of even the most stoic audience as they recognize the inner changes that have been so beautifully dramatized. The revelation in Cranium Command is strictly informative. Your left brain does this. Your hypothalamus does that. The brain’s job is to keep everyone working in tandem.
Inside Out may be the more sophisticated take on this concept, but Cranium Command is a fascinating antique that represents a dying breed of theme park attraction. Epcot was once home to rides and attractions centered on education, motivation, and giving visitors new perspectives on the world. One by one, rides like Horizons, World of Motion and The Living Seas have closed their doors to make way for thrill rides and attractions starring Disney characters. For all of its dated cheesiness, Cranium Command really, truly had its heart in the right place.
Cranium Command may be no more, but you can revisit it on YouTube. However, it’s easy to see why it’s gone and old school fans may find the video depressing. The lone, camera-wielding visitor is the only person in line. He’s the only one in the large theater. He even chats with one of the ride operators, saying that he’s there to capture footage of the show because it’s rumored to be closing soon. He was right, of course.
Not long after this video was filmed, the entire Wonders of Life pavilion closed and all of its health and body-related attractions were shuttered. Today, the Wonders of Life dome still stands and gets used for various special events and corporate functions. According to internet scuttlebutt, the Cranium Command theater and its animatronics still lie dormant in the bowels of the building, waiting for someone, anyone, to want to learn about the human brain once again.
But Cranium Command could have the last laugh. After all, Inside Out opened to $91 million, the biggest opening weekend for a non-sequel ever and Disney is always on the hunt for popular movies and characters to showcase in its parks. There have surely already been talks of an Inside Out attraction. The Cranium Command show space could easily be transformed into the Headquarters of Inside Out. There’s something wonderful about that on a conceptual level. What if the brain-centric attraction where Pete Docter got his start could become an attraction based on the brain-centric movie he directed 25 years later? That question has no actual grounding in reality, but it would be kind of perfect. Cranium Command eventually evolved into Inside Out, so perhaps it’s time to return the favor.