We are who we were – every one of us. Whether we realize it or not, we are all shaped by the things we have saw and did long ago, and the feelings we experienced at the time. They are tiles in a mosaic that make up our personalities, and fuel our very emotions and characteristics. Sure, we all have wants, desires, goals and ambitions, and they will change as we mature…but in the end, we are a composite of everything we’ve already gone through; every feeling we’ve already felt.
INSIDE OUT is the story of Riley – an eleven-year-old girl who loves her family, her friends, playing hockey, and acting silly. These characteristics are embodied in her head by five spritely emotions; Joy (voiced by Amy Poehler), Sadness (Phyllis Smith), Fear (Bill Hader), Anger (Lewis Black), and Disgust (Mindy Kaling). The five do a pretty good job of navigating Riley through life. They spark and collect memories, and see to it that they are used to create “Islands” reflecting Riley’s core characteristics and passions. Every island is fuelled by a key memory.
One day though, everything gets thrown for a loop; Riley’s parents tell her they are moving to San Francisco. The life upheaval is tough for Riley (as is to be expected), but in her brain, Joy busts her butt to see to it that every day ends with a smile. Much of this is coming at the expense of Sadness, who Joy is trying to keep out of places where she can do any real damage.
However, on Riley’s first day of school things go sideways fast. Sadness touches one of Riley’s key memories at an inopportune moment, causing Riley to cry in front of her new schoolmates. Joy sees this turning into a new key memory and tries to set things right. The resulting fracas causes both Joy and Sadness to get knocked out of headquarters.
As Riley tries to navigate this tough time in her life, three things are happening inside of her head;
Fear, Disgust, and Anger are running the show. The lack of key memories (pulled in the melee between Joy and Sadness) has the islands slowly falling away. And Joy and Sadness are wandering through Long Term Memory, Abstract Thought, and Imagination trying to get back to where they belong.
All of this leaves Riley feeling amazingly mixed up, and amazingly short on ideas or answers.
From a distance, INSIDE OUT might seem like a plucky adventure of a few cartoon characters trying to get back home. Joy and Sadness seem to be undertaking the classic “hero’s journey” to get back to Headquarters. But with every step, and every location, you begin to realize that INSIDE OUT is actually a lavish and nuanced look at what’s going on inside our brains – more specifically, the brain of a tween girl (which is a scary place to be at the best of times).
We’re reminded, for instance, the way our personalities are built upon particular interests and interactions. We might not think of ourselves as puzzles whose pieces are “loves hockey”, “acts goofy”, and such…but when you think about what makes you who you are, you realize that INSIDE OUT’s island metaphor is actually a very elegant way of breaking down what composes a given person’s character.
So what happens to us when one of these islands seems suddenly uninhabitable? What if, for example, a person wakes up one day and decides that they don’t like going to movies anymore?
Will that change who they are? Absolutely. Is that a bad thing? Not necessarily. Riley doesn’t realize it, but she can absolutely stop acting like a goofball or playing hockey, and she will still be Riley. She’ll feel out-of-sorts for sure, but eventually new islands will spring up with new interests and new facets to her personality.
Such is true for all of us.
It’s seeing all of this play out in real-time that gives INSIDE OUT its muscle. The film reminds us that there are worse things for a child to be than just sad, as is evidenced when Disgust, Fear, and Anger are trying to steer the ship. Joy can endure, and Sadness fades, but those other three have a knack of making a pretty big mess of things pretty quickly. It all gets extra poigniency when we realize it would indeed be the case for a child having trouble adapting to change.
A child “feeling sad” wouldn’t sum it up properly – they are feeling far more than that. What’s more don’t have the maturity to understand it within themselves.
That’s where a grown-up needs to do their bit. INSIDE OUT wants to remind parents that they may want certain things for their children – especially when it’s beneficial to the greater situation – but a child just may not be able to deliver. Something might misfire, or something might break. In these moments, it’s up to adults to put their own sadness, anger, fear, and disgust aside and be an ambassador of joy for their children to follow.
Time and again, I’ve said in this space how much I loved the way classic Disney animated features taught children that it was okay to be scared. Those movies used wicked queens, fire-breathing dragons, witches, warlocks, heffalumps and woozles. Those movies terrified the children who kept their eyes behind their fingers in the seats of those darkened cinemas. But eventually the lights would come up, and children would understand firsthand that all fears will pass. The temptation is there now to shelter our children…to dial down the intensity and protect them from that which may frighten them. But how might we have turned out if our parents didn’t let us watch Mufasa die, or didn’t have us witness The Red Queen calling for people’s heads?
The people at Pixar seem to know how we might have turned out, and they want the next generation to learn a new lesson. They want to take what Uncle Walt taught them about it being okay to be afraid, and turn that into a lesson about how it’s okay to be sad. This might even be a more important lesson since it’s one we all struggle with well into adulthood. There’s a push to be happy…to be “normal”…when sometimes that’s just not how we feel. Sometimes for reasons that we don’t want to talk about – or furthermore just cannot talk about – we feel sad. It happens when we’re 40 just like it happens when we’re 10, and it’s okay. It’s normal, it’s not within our control, and it is there to be embraced if not understood.
We want children to lead lives filled with joy, but sadness, anger, and fear are every bit as important in a child’s life. They shouldn’t be afraid to listen to those particular voices inside their head…no matter what the voices are saying.