Pixar studios has brought us some of the most celebrated children’s movies of the past two decades. Classics like Toy Story and Finding Nemo are cherished by both the young and young at heart. In 2015, the acclaimed studio gave us what I consider the diamond of its collection, Inside Out. Everything about the movie is genius. I would have loved to be in the meetings that determined how to portray the inner thoughts of a young girl struggling with her emotions. What those meetings produced is nothing short of amazing. Let’s take a look at what is so genius about the film: the premise, plot, and payoff of Inside Out.
- The Premise
The inner workings of the human brain and human emotions have baffled scientists for centuries. How could an animated feature portray such a complicated idea in a way that children can understand, and adults can appreciate? The motherboard of Riley’s brain is controlled by five primary anthropomorphized emotions: Joy, Sadness, Anger, Fear, and Disgust. There are of course other emotions in the human experience, but these five are a great leaping off point. Riley is a happy child, so Joy does the heavy lifting.
Outside the control center are the “core memories” that have helped to shape Riley’s personality. Goofball Island, Family Island, and Friendship Island, among others, are the building blocks of who Riley is. Each day, Riley has many experiences that are characterized by the primary emotions, colored a certain way to mark them, and then sent “down to long-term memory.” However, some memories that are less important end up falling into a pit of despair, only to be forgotten, literally. It’s a genius premise that doesn’t get the credit it deserves. And we haven’t even discussed the brilliant use of phrases like train of thought or concepts like abstract thought or an sequence on dreams and nightmares.
2. The Plot
As someone who moved from city to city often as a child, I understand Riley’s short-lived excitement that quickly turns into reluctance at all the new and frightening experiences. Outside Riley’s brain, we see her experiencing classic signs of anxiety and depression. She becomes quiet and reclusive. She lashes out to loved ones. She loses interest in things that she used to love. These are all the warning signs of a young person battling depression.
To depict Riley’s inner turmoil, we see that she loses both her Joy and Sadness. The core memory islands, the pillars of her personality, begin to crumble and fade. A bad idea enters her mind, and she takes hold of it in a way she never would have before. She even reaches the point where she loses all emotion as her control center freezes over. It’s an exquisite depiction of a very real issue.
3. The Payoff
How does Riley overcome her depression? What is the catalyst to return Joy back to her mind and soul? How can she rediscover who she is when it seems that she has lost so much? The conclusion of the movie answers all these questions. Sadness is the key. As much as she tries, Joy cannot force herself on Riley. Riley must be open to grieve what she has lost in order to move forward. Emotions are not just black and white (or yellow and blue). They are complicated mixtures that we cannot control, only feel. When Riley becomes vulnerable in a safe place with her family and lets herself feel the sadness, she is once again able to find herself and her Joy.
As social worker and researcher Brené Brown describes, we cannot choose what emotions we want to experience. If we want to experience true Joy, we also must risk feeling Sadness. Without Sadness in our lives, there is no way for Joy to enter. We must be vulnerable enough to risk all emotions in order to experience any of them. It’s a beautiful way to tell a difficult, but elegant story.