As a psychologist, I have noticed that that it has been a challenge for film directors to describe the vast complexities of human behavior on a movie screen that the public will find entertaining. Movies, as visual productions, limit the presence of narrative description so essential in character development. But with the help of technological advances, what is lost in narrative description can be replaced by scenes filled with visual narration. The Pixar Disney production of Inside Out does just this, in a brilliant display of emotions, taking place within the mind of an 11 year old girl named Riley.
Because my view of what a traditional movie on the big screen should look like, I have not been too excited with animated movies. However, despite this bias of mine, I found Inside Out to stand alone on its own merits of innovation by demonstrating how an 11 year old girl’s emotions may cause her to act in certain ways. The animated features, in effect, magnify the conflicting feelings that Riley is currently experiencing.
The catalyst that triggers this girl’s emotions occurs when her parents relocate from Minnesota, where she had played ice hockey, to San Francisco. Departure from one’s familiar surroundings is hard for anyone but, without a doubt, much harder for a child or adolescent. Years ago, when I was doing some consulting work for LA county, one of the clerical workers, although having never attended college, was well read and to me appeared as bright, if not brighter than a college graduate. Like college students in an English Lit class, we would discuss the finer points of some great books that we both had read. I wondered why he was a clerk, a position well below what I considered his academic potential.
As we came to know each other better, he told me that when he had moved from Chicago to Los Angeles, it had been a devastating blow to his emotional growth. He had to give up his relationships with close friends and, he encountered great difficulty in adjusting to the change in his environment. I listened and could see the pain reflected in his face as he talked about this sad event that had occurred some twenty to twenty five years earlier. I wondered whether it was this event that had kept him from going to college and actualizing what I considered his very high potential inasmuch as this memory appeared so vivid in his mind.
In the movie, Inside Out, we see how Riley, the 11 year old girl, deals with the heart breaking experience of leaving her hometown through her emotions of Joy, Fear, Anger, Disgust and Sadness. Throughout this journey, the two primary emotions are Joy and Sadness and, consequently I will focus my review on these two emotions. One of the basic tenets of the movie is the important role that Sadness plays in helping Riley cope with the stressors that her new environment bring. Some of these stressors are peer pressure as seen in the classroom and, when she tries out for ice hockey as a girl. She is so overwhelmed by her emotions that she decides to leave her family as she proceeds to steal her mother’s credit card and board a bus heading out of San Francisco. But once again her emotions come into play recognizing the hurt she would cause her parents.
Riley’s turning point comes when her Sadness, the flip side of Joy, becomes her dominant emotion. When she is able to express the Sadness that her departure from her old home in Minnesota has caused, her parents, who all along have been preoccupied with the details of the move, become aware of what she has been facing and are able to embrace and bond with her in a supportive manner. If the emotion of Sadness does not emerge, we sense that Riley will somehow not be able to successfully complete her transition to her new environment. As Riley begins to be more comfortable in her new environment, Joy, once more dominates her other emotions and the movie ends on a happy note.
What is most remarkable about Inside Out is that the movie has innumerable possibilities for sequels. For example, how about a boy Riley’s age or older who faces peer pressure along with the added difficulty of getting along with his siblings. In the film, Riley has no siblings. Another possibility would be how a child copes with a traumatic situation such as being beaten up by a bully or observing a parent being abused. We are beginning to know so much more about how the brain coordinates our emotions that, presently, such situations could be visually enlivened with the use of animation the way Inside Out did. The beauty of Inside Out is that it is an entertainment that can be shared by adults and children both insofar as adults can surely remember the bumps in their own lives that may have made growing up not always such a smooth transition from childhood to adulthood.
Is there room for changes in the structure of inside Out that would improve on the content and what it has to offer? As a psychologist, I know that the driving force behind human emotions is thoughts and, it is the ability to think that distinguishes us from other primates. Perhaps a future movie can deal with two fictitious characters experiencing the same situation (such as moving from home) in a different way. The key here would be to show how one character copes better with the other because his/her thoughts are more accepting to the change than the other character. Accordingly, the character shown to cope better would be more likely to have joy as a predominating emotion than sadness in contrast to the other character.