It’s no secret that I hate the Disney Death, where a film (usually an animated one) has a character appear to die, often just long enough for a moment of pathos and grief before it turns out they’re fine, no big. It’s been done so many times that it hits hard when an animated film does actually let death happen, as Docter did with the opening 10 minutes of Up. But here, as Riley’s imaginary friend Bing Bong (Richard Kind) consciously sacrifices himself to get Joy to safety, it has a particularly strange, strong impact, because of what Bing Bong represents. He isn’t just a goofy purple singing blob with an elephant trunk and a bad wardrobe, he’s an intrinsic part of her childhood that’s being permanently lost, and she’ll never even notice he’s gone. His devotion to someone who’s forgotten him—and his willingness to guarantee she’ll never remember him—is pretty heady stuff for such a candy-colored film, even one that is transparently about big, painful emotions.
Bing Bong’s death came as a particular shock when I first saw the film because I was really expecting a completely different story beat there: Since his wagon is powered by song, I really expected him to realize he and Joy could sing that maddeningly catchy TripleDent Gum jingle to get an extra boost out of the memory hole. Instead, he chooses to end himself to get Joy to safety. And there’s never any takeback on that sacrifice, which is both where it gets its emotional impact and where it gets its metaphorical value as a window into everything that’s important to people in childhood, but forgotten by adolescence. That’s one of the biggest takeaways of the film in general: The way all these parts of Riley’s personality that have been around since the beginning, and which seem profoundly important in her mind, fall apart and are replaced.
Pete Docter talked to me a little about Bing Bong when I interviewed him about the film a few weeks ago. We’ll have that interview up early next week—we wanted to give people time to watch the film—but we’re going to break out the spoilery bit and put it in Newsreel so people don’t run across it unawares. So look for it there.
And in the meantime… how many of you walked out of this movie and at least briefly considered the feelings going on in your own head in terms of a bunch of little people operating a switchboard, and wondered who’s in the driver’s seat?