If you didn’t see Pixar’s Inside Out in theaters on Father’s Day, surrounded by whispering children who clapped both at the end of the short preceding it (about volcanos who fall in love), and again at as the credits rolled, fear not: you will still very likely sob hysterically while laughing equally as hard, even without the emotional rush of familial bonding.
Experiencing that range of feelings while watching a Pixar film is pretty par for the course, and in many ways, Inside Out fits nicely into the mold of its predecessors like the Toy Story movies, films that also grapple with the complexity of growing up. But this one has been pegged as a different kind of movie, considered special because its protagonist is Riley, a preteen girl. Though that’s certainly not to be understated—seeing a young woman’s thoughts and feelings played out on a big screen where space is usually carved out for men and young boys is wholly satisfying—the character we actually spend the most time with is Joy, voiced by Amy Poehler, the ringleader of the band of emotions controlling Riley’s brain, joined by Sadness (Phyllis Smith), Disgust (Mindy Kaling), Anger (Lewis Black) and Fear (Bill Hader). Pixar has turned the brain into a sort of pinball game, where the balls are different memories, ricocheting around Riley’s mind, ending up in all sorts of places I won’t spoil, as seeing what the creators have done with this world is half the fun of the movie.
For a child, watching Inside Out is (probably) exciting because of the beautiful animation and the journey Joy and Sadness take together to right Riley’s world when things go awry, with the message of the film working as a subconscious bonus. But for an adult, the message is so moving it felt overwhelming; it wasn’t just the effect of Father’s Day and the touching family scenes that had the row of adults behind me sniffling. This movie is a welcome reminder that the way you’re feeling at any given time is all right, even necessary. Despite Joy’s endless need to make everything okay (the vocal casting of Poehler was the perfect call), when things start to fall apart in Riley’s life (and mind), that’s when Sadness, Disgust, Fear and Anger all show their worth. Being happy all the time is a nice goal, but it doesn’t always get us where we need to go, whether that’s strengthening relationships or moving forward in our lives.
It’s tempting for adults, especially controlling ones, to want to push our negative emotions away, or to just wish that we could, even if we can’t. But Inside Out fills you with a deep calm that everything will be okay, not despite these emotions, but because of them. Riley doesn’t ever enter a deep depression (the film doesn’t take place over a long enough period of time to make that possible), but as most of it occurs over the span of a day or two, the seemingly-accidental set of mistakes on the part of those controlling her mind recalls the way it feels as an adult to fall into a funk like that. One small thing, or a bunch of small things, can make it seem as though your world is in pieces, even if you’re not 11 years old.
The fact that Pixar movies these days (or just children’s films in general) are made largely with adult viewers in mind has not gone unnoticed. But the value of that in a film like Inside Out is the ability to bridge communication gaps between family members of vastly different life experiences. In the bathroom after the movie, I heard a mother talking to her young son. “Why would he be embarrassed to like her?” her son asked, referring to a brief moment where Riley runs into a preteen boy who can barely talk to her because he’s so overwhelmed about speaking to a girl.
“You’ll understand when you’re older,” she replied. “Maybe he liked her.” Her child didn’t seem to get it, but if you learn anything from Inside Out, it’s that our emotions rarely make sense to us until they work themselves out.
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Image via Disney/Pixar.