“This is not just a kid’s movie.” says Raymond Bechard. “It explains why we need all our emotions, even the “bad” ones.”
Human emotions are typically the driving force behind all great stories. The endless combinations and conflicts of mixed, out of control emotions create almost every subtext from classic literature to today’s blockbuster movies. We witness what the characters do when motivated by their emotional turmoil or upheaval . . . and wait for a resolution of some kind, all while the story takes us on our own emotional journey.
Recently, Disney/Pixar produced a Game Changer to this “we know the emotions are there, but we don’t really see them” model of story-telling. Inside Out, released in theaters earlier this summer, goes directly into the mind of Riley Anderson, an 11 year-old Minnesota girl, and makes her core emotions the main characters of the movie.
Riley, we learn, lives a charmed life. “Joy” is—mostly—at the helm of a control panel filled with buttons, switches and dials located in “Head Quarters” centered deep inside Riley’s mind. Along with “Joy” (voiced by Amy Poehler) are “Anger” (Lewis Black, of course), “Disgust,” (Mindy Kaling), “Fear” (Bill Hader), and “Sadness” Phyllis Smith. As Riley goes about her days playing hockey, laughing with her family and friends, and embracing life, “Joy” seems to have a handle on the other emotional characters amidst the constant antics taking place in ” Head Quarters.”
The brilliance of the movie brings us to the subtle, but absolute, belief that “Joy” must stay in control of all things at all times. Riley’s memories, actions, decisions, relationships, even her personality seem in jeopardy if “Joy” does not cheerfully wrestle control away from all other emotions. A simple decision of whether or not to eat broccoli for the first time demonstrates how Riley’s emotions work, and don’t work, at the same time to take action.
A sudden move to San Francisco by Riley’s parents throw “Head Quarters,” Riley’s emotions, and most of all, Riley into absolute chaos. As she navigates this new life, we learn of her past; the moments and memories that made her who she is. Until now, “Joy” has been in control of Riley, but now the emotions conflict on how best to navigate a new city, house and school.
Simply put, the emotions are freaking out. San Francisco is not Minnesota, especially to an 11 year-old girl. After all, they put broccoli on pizza! “Congratulations San Francisco, you’ve ruined pizza,” yells “Anger.” “First the Hawaiians, and now you.”
“Joy” quickly loses her grasp and Riley begins to lose her identity . . . and her childhood. While trying to save a happy “Core Memory,” both “Joy” and “Sadness” are taken to a distant land in Riley’s mind, far away from Head Quarters. The emotional journey that follows, taken by the emotions themselves, is genius in its exploration of human behavioral development.
As a “Kids’ Movie,” Inside Out is outstanding. As an educational tool for parents, teachers and behaviorists, it is essential.
Through a captivating, compelling storyline, Riley’s happy memories transform into sad ones. Indeed, memories are malleable. “Retrieving a memory brings it back to life,” explains Dr. Allie Shapiro, Pediatric Psychiatrist Resident at Utah University Hospital. “And the very act of retrieval changes the way that memory is stored away again. This happens because memories are very delicate. Unlike a paper file that can be removed from storage and placed back in its original, identical condition, memories are changed by our current state of mind, as well as other memories. Everything that happens to us can touch every memory we have. Inside Out is incredibly helpful in teaching this fundamental idea.”
As Riley’s world continues to fall apart, she becomes depressed. “Head Quarters” shuts down and Riley is left without emotional guidance. Some of emotions are lost and wandering. Others are simply acting on impulse. Soon Riley’s moral compass begins to lose its foundations. Unable to deal with the loss of joy and controlled for the first time by other emotions, she decides to run away. After stealing her mother’s credit card, Riley hops on a bus to parts unknown.
Initially, Riley’s newly sad memories are seen as a fatal blow to her life and persona. But once “Joy” and “Sadness” make it back to “Headquarters,” with help from “Anger’s” anger, “Disgust’s” disgust and “Fear’s” fear, we learn that not all “bad” emotions are bad. By recalling the full story of Riley’s most important and happiest memories, “Joy” realizes that they occurred out of a response to a healthy dose of sadness. Losing a hockey game made Riley sad, which motivated her parents and friends to celebrate Riley with a victory parade—a happy memory was created from a sad event.
(Spoiler Alert) Upon this realization “Joy” quickly puts “Sadness” in emotional charge of Riley, who sits on a bus leaving San Francisco. “Sadness” moves Riley to see the horrible consequences of what she is about to do. Leaping from the bus, Riley runs to her parents and tells them she misses her life in Minnesota. With sadness fully in control she expresses her feelings openly and begins to sob. Her parents respond lovingly and another joyful moment/memory is created.
With this, we, including “Joy,” “Sadness,” “Anger,” “Disgust,” and “Fear,” realize that all emotions play an important role in our lives and that we don’t always have to be happy. In fact, it’s not healthy to feel happy through all life’s circumstances. The simple act of living calls for our emotions to be used appropriately and in balance with one another. Given to any one emotion over all others can lead to disaster.
Yes, it’s difficult to understand change at times. Or to explain it to our children. For most people, especially young people, it brings out emotions that are difficult to handle. As the movie clearly demonstrates, this is normal and happens to everyone. There is no avoiding the fact that tough times are part of life. But, it’s important to remember, as Riley learns from her journey, that Sadness is okay sometimes, change can be good, and challenging situations are necessary for growth. Of course, pervasive Sadness is depression and needs to be considered in a wholly different way.
Inside Out reminds us that Sadness is not always a bad thing. You do not have to be happy all the time. Sadness, along with all our emotions, complement each other. And when Sadness is embraced as “normal,” all emotions become more cohesive.
I can’t help wonder what Disney/Pixar would do if they tackled Sexual Development and Education. If they could gently approach that hot topic in the same way Inside Out explains behavioral and emotional growth, it would forever end the Sex-Ed-In-Schools debate.
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