The tagline for Disney/Pixar’s newest film, Inside Out, is “A major emotion picture.” A fantastic pun, but they aren’t kidding: the director/writer Peter Docter — whose Up (2009) is unquestionably in the hall of fame of emo-animation — knows how to bring out the feelings in a story. Having him make a movie featuring emotions as the main “characters” was a huge set-up for tissues, but also insight— this narrative reaches new heights (or depths) for Disney/Pixar in dealing with depression and understanding why we feel.
Warning: some spoilers ahead
Five colorful emotions manage 11-year-old Riley’s behavior: Joy, Anger, Disgust, Fear, and Sadness.
When the film begins, Riley is a pollyanna kid, and Joy, voiced by Amy Poehler, is the bouncy, dedicated commander of Riley’s mind. The emotions are in charge of operating Riley’s feelings, and sorting her memories — glowing spheres in different hues depending on what kind of emotion created them. Joy appreciates what Anger, Disgust, and Fear bring to the table for Riley, how they keep her safe and functioning, but she doesn’t get Sadness at all.
The real story starts with Riley’s family uprooting and moving away. Although Joy tries to keep her kid positive, Sadness,voiced by Phyllis Smith, stirs up Riley’s memories of her old life, turning them blue and sorrowful. Then, in a freak accident, Joy and Sadness get lost in the labyrinth of long-term memory and must try to find their way back to command central through the subconscious, hitching a ride on the train of thought. In the meantime, Riley can no longer feel Joy or Sadness. She’s being operated by Anger, Fear, and Disgust, who are all trying to make her feel happy, but failing.
In our glimpses of the “outer” Riley, we see her become confused and frustrated at her own behavior. She throws a tantrum at hockey try outs, pushes away her best friend, and won’t make the usual jokes with her parents. Nothing that used to feel good feels that way anymore. She can’t feel happy or sad.
The brilliance of this plot is how it allows Docter to illustrate a struggle with depression. Yes, we’re missing joy when we’re depressed, but we don’t really feel sadness deeply, either. We’re affected by other emotions that don’t know how to make us feel better, no matter how hard they try, with lashing out, putting down ourselves and others, or hiding in our rooms.
Another important thread in this story is the conflict between Joy and Sadness. On their return journey, they encounter Riley’s former imaginary friend, Bing Bong, waiting to be remembered. When he realizes that Riley has outgrown him, Joy tries to cheer him up and begs him to stop crying. But it’s Sadness that helps Bing Bong recover, by sitting down quietly next to him and validating his feelings: “That is sad.” Joy watches in awe as they finish crying together, and then Bing Bong hugs Sadness and tells her he feels better now. This moment sparks an idea in Joy, when she suddenly sees Sadness’ purpose — and that she is crucial to Riley’s recovery. All feelings are important to feel and keep us going, even those that make us cry.
It’s impossible to watch this film without taking a ride on your own train of introspection. How are your own memories sorted? Do you remember them differently when you’re going through a hard time? What emotions inhabit your command central, or your friends’?
Taking the plot a step further, we can use these metaphors to help kids (or any person, really) in their own struggles with emotions and/or mental health.
Good movies make us think, and great movies help us understand ourselves and the world better — inside out!