Inside Out: a film with internalized conflict

There’s a joke about Pixar that their movie premises can be boiled down to “What if [blank] had feelings?” What if toys had feelings? Toy Story. What if fish had feelings? Finding Nemo. What if robots had feelings? Wall-E. And the list goes on

Pixar is really good at applying human experiences to non-human entities; they’ve boiled it down to a formula that keeps viewers coming back every time. Inside Out, Pixar’s critically-acclaimed summer blockbuster, took the exploration of emotions to a new extreme. In this sense it’s the quintessential Pixar flick. Except there’s one element that gets flipped on its head: the conflict.

We’re used to being handed a classic tale of good versus evil. The protagonist must look within him or herself, find the strength that was there all along, and defeat some kind of villain. There is probably some kind of epic battle or showdown.

Inside Out breaks the mold with an internal struggle. There’s no super villain, no school bully, just dealing with emotions. The entire conflict is inside the main character’s mind. Her name is Riley; she’s a little girl whose life is completely changed when her father’s job moves their family from Minnesota to San Francisco. The audience sees her struggle to adapt to this new life from the perspective of her emotions.

In Pixar’s creative imagination of our brains, there are five little people up in Headquarters controlling our actions: Joy (Amy Poehler), Sadness (Phyllis Smith), Fear (Bill Hader), Anger (Lewis Black) and Disgust (Mindy Kaling). They all work in chaotic but perfect harmony to maintain Riley’s memories and core values, keep track of dreams, and help her make important decisions. Through their narration, we meet Riley, learn about her life, and watch as she grows more and more uncomfortable in her new home. What really sets the movie into motion is when Joy and Sadness get lost in long-term memory and Fear, Anger and Disgust are left running the show — clearly a pleasant combination.

With these three at the helm, Riley turns into every pre-teen just hitting the crest of adolescence. As she makes rash, destructive choices in real life, the consequences in her mind are dire. Hockey island, family island, goofball island, and honesty island, representing the values and interests that make up her personality, start crumbling into the abyss, sending the emotions into a panic. Riley’s relationships with her parents and peers weaken, and she can’t figure out how to control her moods.

As Joy and Sadness attempt to make it back to Headquarters with the help of Riley’s childhood imaginary friend Bing Bong (Richard Kind), Sadness finally realizes her purpose. Before, she only seemed to cause tantrums, crying, and more sadness. But through revisiting these sad memories, Joy helps her realize that sadness is Riley’s way of asking for help and support.

The two return to Headquarters just in time to stop Riley from making an irreversible mistake, and get her home to her parents where she is finally able to share the way she has been feelings since their move. The final half hour of the movie comes with the heartfelt softness of all Pixar movies, and there’s a good chance it will even make you cry.

But what sets this movie apart is the takeaway. Because the conflict was internal, so was its resolution. Riley’s struggle can teach an important lesson to viewers of all ages and backgrounds, but my hope is that it will resonate with children who still have time to change. The lesson is that feelings are okay.

The movie also shows the cast of emotions in Riley’s parents, which makes for an entertaining scene, but more importantly shows that everyone has feelings. It’s perfectly natural to have emotions of all kinds, not just happiness, but sadness, fear, anger, disgust, all of the above and otherwise. It’s part of being a human, especially at Riley’s age.

Many of the kids that saw Inside Out this summer are coming up on puberty and will start having these kinds of hormone-driven episodes of angst. Riley can show these kids and other teens that they aren’t alone in it; many of their friends and peers are probably experiencing something similar.

The resolution of the film teaches a more important but less popular lesson: that it’s beneficial to express your emotions. Tons and tons of people have a hard time talking about their feelings in order to come to a positive solution, opting instead to internalize them. This is easier at the time and allows you to save face, but in the long run, it only damages your emotional well-being and maturity.

I sincerely applaud Pixar for creating a movie that focuses on more a personal, sentimental concept with real-life applications to its viewers. Inside Out has the potential to inspire a vast audience to become more sensitive, which can benefit everyone.