Short seen with ‘Moana’ tracks battle of heart vs. mind

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The short film that precedes “Moana,” called “Inner Workings,” showcases the internal struggle between one’s pragmatic, logical self and the free-spirited, adventurous self. | ©2016 Disney

Think of the many times your brain has talked your grumbly stomach out of a stack of calorie-laden pancakes, or convinced your heart that it shouldn’t act on romantic urges because of potential embarrassment.

That daily unseen push-and-pull in our bodies comes to animated life in the Disney short “Inner Workings,” directed by “Big Hero 6” and “Wreck-It Ralph” story artist Leo Matsuda. The short is now playing in front of the big-screen musical fantasy “Moana,” starring Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson.

“That’s my life: I’m always in a tug of war between the two extremes,” says Matsuda. There’s also a similar dichotomy with his own ancestry: His Japanese side is “very disciplined, and I also have my Brazilian side, which is all carnival and parties.”

The primary players of “Inner Workings” are the fearful brain and the good-time heart of Paul, an average Joe paper-pusher whose walk to work is filled with distractions where the two organs don’t agree on the right course of action, with the brain usually winning out. Experiencing both the monotony of work life and the fun that everybody else is having at a nearby beach, heart and mind come to an understanding, though Paul doesn’t throw all caution to the wind.

“A lot of times, there are these stories where your heart wants to do something and you abandon all responsibility,” says producer Sean Lurie. “This message is actually, how do you find fun and joy and incorporate that into your life?”

Matsuda figures audiences can relate to the brain’s struggle with fear. “You forget to appreciate your own life. It’s something very real for a lot of people, with bills to pay and family and personal responsibilities.”

The animation of “Inner Workings” is influenced by Disney’s characters-first mind-set, according to the director, though the initial idea was spawned by the Encyclopedia Britannica volumes he pored over as a child — especially the biology tome with transparent overlays that showed “how all the systems worked together,” Matsuda says. “That was something that stuck with me since I was little.”

Matsuda’s original pitch to the Disney animation braintrust showcased his “very quirky sense of humor,” Lurie adds. “There was something that felt really original and fresh.”

He also recalls Matsuda being adamant that the brain be the main character, since it drives the plot but also changes the most as it learns a few things from fellow organs.

And in the director’s personal life, his noggin is often what takes the lead over Matsuda’s heart.

“It’s why I had the urge to tell the story, because it’s something I have to work on — how to balance in my life,” he says.

Brian Truitt, USA TODAY Network

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