Kids Are Complicated Too: Pixar’s Latest Is Turning Stereotypes Inside Out
Directed by: Peter Doctor
Screenplay by: Peter Doctor, Meg LeFauve, and Josh Cooley
Disney/PIXAR (June 19, 2015)
Disney/PIXAR’s latest film explores yet-uncharted territory: a look at the tween mind from the inside. Five emotions—led by Amy Poehler’s effervescent Joy—live in eleven-year-old Riley’s mind and operate a control board that creates Riley’s thoughts and actions. Moments of her life are cataloged as memory orbs, the most important of which are core memories that create islands outside of the emotions’ headquarters. These revolve around the staples of Riley’s life, such as the Family Island and Hockey Island. At the onset of the plot, all of Riley’s core memories are happy.
Joy adores Riley and wants what’s best for her—happiness, of course—and this makes her a bit reluctant to give up the controls to other emotions, especially Sadness. While Anger, Fear, and Disgust recognize Joy as their leader, Sadness struggles to follow Joy’s rules, which, to be fair, often entail keeping Sadness in a corner by herself where she can’t touch any part of Riley’s mind.
When Riley’s family moves from in Minnesota to San Francisco, Joy’s position as the emotions’ leader begins to crumble. Anger, Fear, and Disgust generate as many memories as Joy, as Riley leaves behind her friends, finds her new home to be old and worn, and fails to make a good first impression at school and hockey tryouts. When an unsupervised Sadness touches the control panel, Riley breaks down crying in front of her class, resulting in her first unhappy core memory. Joy’s decision to throw the memory away instead of letting it reside with the other cores leads to a struggle between her and Sadness, and the two end up falling down the garbage chute with all of Riley’s core memories in tow. While Joy and Sadness must journey back to headquarters from deep within Riley’s mind, Anger, Fear, and Disgust helm the control board. Without Joy and her core memories, though, Riley starts to break down, and the islands that make up who she is as a person follow suit.
Some Disney movies are made for children, and some Disney movies are made for their parents. Inside Out definitely falls into the latter category. While young children will delight in Joy and Sadness’s misadventures navigating Riley’s mind—which involve meeting the boy-band-esque Imaginary Boyfriend, riding the Train of Thought, and hijacking the studios where Riley’s dreams are filmed—Mom and Dad will probably be holding back tears as we see Riley’s mind growing up to match her preteen age. Workers inside the labyrinth of memories tear down childhood dreams to make room for newer models, and an imaginary friend from Riley’s toddler years struggles with becoming obsolete.
Perhaps most gut-wrenching of all for adult viewers is the outside world’s frame for what’s happening in Riley’s mind. Her parents are having a hard time adjusting to the move as well, and Riley’s mother commends her for being able to keep on a happy face, helping her parents to think positively. Riley internalizes this praise as pressure to be happy all the time and never give in to sadness, a stance staunchly upheld by Joy in her mind. Without Joy present in headquarters—and, just as importantly, without Sadness—Riley can’t process the move, her new life, or the pressure to support her parents. A conversation that an adult would consider heartening becomes the catalyst for Riley’s unhappiness.
Inside Out makes mountains out of mole hills in some ways; moving isn’t the worst thing that can happen to a kid, especially in 2015 when old friends are an app away, and awkward first days don’t last forever. Yet perhaps that’s just my adult mind rationalizing. Moments of the plot that I couldn’t connect to probably resonate more strongly with the movie’s target audience. It certainly plays up the fear of being replaced by old friends and not fitting in with new ones, which were signs of the end of the world when I was a tween too.
Riley’s arguably immature problems can be overlooked in favor of the more sophisticated theme that sadness is a normal and healthy emotion, even for kids. Importantly, although Inside Out doesn’t shy away from this theme, it also doesn’t prioritize the moral over the plot. Audiences can enjoy the characters and story without even realizing that a lesson is behind them.
Some parents probably won’t like that the movie addresses anxiety and sadness in children, but Inside Out acknowledges the range of emotions kids deal with today and have always dealt with. The movie recognizes that youth doesn’t equal simplicity and that people of all ages experience complex thoughts and feelings. It provides context for children to understand that there’s nothing wrong with how we feel in good or bad situations. Sometimes in order to get back to being happy, the movie points out, we have to be sad first. Once we face what bothers us directly, we can move forward.