Inside Out and the Importance of Story

When I went to see Inside Out with my husband about a month and a half ago, I didn’t really know what to expect. I’d watched the trailers, so I understood the basic premise, but the plot eluded me. This was a movie…about feelings? I didn’t get it. But Disney Pixar has never let me down, so I entered the movie theater expecting great things. And I was not disappointed.

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I waited so long to bring this movie up here because I wanted to make sure I actually liked it. All too often, I’ve been swept away by the latest animated hit, only to find myself feeling ambivalent about it weeks later once the hype died down. Usually in those cases, I didn’t actually love the movie itself, but rather the stunning artwork or the fantastic music. Both of those are essential components to any film, especially those that are animated, because they’re right there on the surface. Visual and aural beauty are the first things we notice when the curtains slide back and the lights go down; they’re what hook us in and make us want to stay. They’re also ephemeral. When we return home and go about our lives, the memory of that stunning landscape or the heartrending sound of this cluster of notes fades until all that is left of that movie in our mind is the story. And, sadly, the story doesn’t always hold up.

But this wasn’t the case with Inside Out, at least not for me. Several weeks later, when I can barely remember what the main character looked like and the soundtrack has all but disappeared, the story still rings true. I still feel comfortable saying that this is the best film Pixar has yet released. It’s better than Toy Story, it’s better than Wreck-It Ralph, and – though it will hurt some to hear this – yes, it’s better than Up. Here’s why.

**Moving forward, there will be spoilers. Consider yourself duly warned.**

It reminds us that there are no such thing as “negative” emotions.

Throughout the course of the story, Fear, Anger, Disgust, and even Sadness prove themselves to be necessary elements of the human experience. No one likes to be afraid, angry, disgusted, or sad, but the truth is that without these emotions, we would not have as full a life. Without fear, there is no caution; without anger, no sense of justice; without disgust,  no appreciation; without sadness, no motivation to better ourselves.

Near the beginning of the movie, I noticed something strange: while Joy is unarguably in charge in Riley’s mind, this is not the case for her parents. The emotion calling the shots for Riley’s mom is Sadness, and for her dad, Anger.

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The interesting thing about this is that neither parent seems to be generally unhappy. This is fantastic foreshadowing for the movie’s epiphany, in which we realize the so-called negative emotions lead to a richer, more complex life experience.

This resonated with me more than any other aspect of the movie. From an early age, I struggled with general anxiety disorder and mild depression. I didn’t receive a diagnosis until I was an adult, but looking back, I can see how it shaped my childhood. For the longest time, I felt guilty because my default setting was not unadulterated Joy, but rather a nasty mix of Anger, Sadness, and Fear. I thought that I was doing something wrong, that somehow I was not living life the way I was supposed to. So it was nice to see those three emotions shown not only as positive, but necessary.

It reminds us that children’s emotions are just as valid as those of adults.

Something that bothers me about modern entertainment, and popular culture in general, really, is the lack of validity given to the feelings of children. Toddlers have meltdowns over the existence of shadows or the fact that they can’t become animals, children throw punches because their another kid was looking at them funny, and teenagers fall into periods of deep, inexplicable angst or claim that they’re in love. From the adult perspective, it’s easy to blow these feelings off as unimportant because we see now how insignificant those kinds of problems were in our own lives.

But here’s the thing: just because someone is young, just because someone doesn’t yet understand how insignificant this moment will be when viewed as part of the big picture, that doesn’t mean those feelings are not real. Just because children don’t have mortgages to worry over or jobs to get to or bills to pay, doesn’t mean they have no right to feel sad, to feel angry, to be afraid.

Initially, Inside Out shows the usual adult reaction to a child’s sadness. Riley, who in addition to leaving her friends and everything she knows behind, has endured a long car ride from Minnesota to California only to arrive at an empty, small house. None of their furniture or clothes have arrived through a shipping error, so she has no clean clothes and no bed. She has to sleep on her new floor in a sleeping bag in the dark. Oh, and when she went to go get pizza with her mom at the place down the street, she finds out the only flavor they have is covered in her least favorite food!

Honestly, this is more than enough to justify anyone being grumpy or sad. But how does Riley’s mom choose to respond to Riley’s less than enthusiastic attitude? She asks her to be happy again.

This input from her parents continues over the course of the movie. They constantly ask her why she isn’t happy, call her their happy girl, ask her where their happy girl is…on and on and on. And she tries. Joy puts Sadness in a tiny little circle, forbidding her to do anything, but it doesn’t work that way. Because sometimes, you’re just sad. And you can’t pretend you’re not.

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But when she finally breaks down at the end and tells them she’s sad because she misses home, they comfort her. They hug her, they cry with her, they commiserate…but they don’t tell her to be happy. Because she’s not. And because they finally understand she, like they, can’t be happy at the push of a button or the pull of a lever, so they stop asking her to try.

It reminds us that personalities change over time, and that’s okay.

At the beginning of the movie, Riley’s personality is defined by five Islands of Personality, each built around a core memory: family, friendship, hockey, sense of right and wrong, and goofiness.

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When Joy accidentally sends Riley’s core memories away from headquarters, everything quickly escalates to disaster. Without Joy (and really, without Sadness), Riley’s actions cause the islands of personality to crumble and fall down into the Memory Dump. The pervading fear of her emotions is that once all the core memories and islands are gone, Riley will be without a personality forever.

But when the final island falls, Riley is still there. She might not know who she is or what she wants, but she’s still there. And with the help of her family, she begins to rebuild. At the end of the movie, new core memories have formed new islands of personality, and she begins to live a richer, more complex life as she matures.

Everyone goes through an identity crisis like this at least once, a time in which we realize we aren’t exactly who we thought we were. And even though it feels like everything is falling apart, we come out on the other side with a better sense not only of who we are, but who we want to be. No one is the same person from cradle to grave – thank God. Because if that was the case, life would hardly be worth living.

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In short, Inside Out is one of the best animated movies ever created. It conquers the question “What does it mean to be human?” on a level both adults and children can appreciate, and it does so in such a way that encourages deep thought and interesting conversation. It acknowledges that human existence is rich and complex and fluid, emphasizes the resilience of the human spirit, and echoes the immortal words of Dr. Seuss:

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