As an anger researcher, a teacher of a Psychology of Emotion course, and a parent, I couldn’t have been more excited to go see Inside Out, the latest Pixar movie about emotion, this weekend. The movie takes place mostly in the mind of a young girl, where each emotion is a character that controls her memories, thoughts, and personality. It did not disappoint and, most importantly, it really did a great job of providing a fun, entertaining, and powerful message about the value of emotions. Although I have a lot to say about how it handled emotions in general, for today I just want to address a few of the ways that it really got anger right.
And so you don’t get to mad at me, I’ll tell you now, there are a few spoilers coming… but nothing huge.
It Nails All the Metaphors
The character of Anger, voiced by Lewis Black, is pretty much all the anger metaphors rolled into one. He’s a hot-head (literally- his head combusts off and on throughout the movie). He’s red, a color that research shows people associate with anger. And did I mention that he’s voiced by Lewis Black, the angriest comedian of all time (who plays the part brilliantly, by the way). Throughout the film, he yells, throws things, and blows-up, both literally and figuratively. It’s important to note that the character only really shows us one type of anger-expression, the outward, aggressive type. In reality, anger can be expressed in a lot of different ways. It's ok in the context of the movie, though, as the central character, Riley, is an 11-year-old dealing with a recent move. She has a lot to be frustrated about and you wouldn't expect a young adolescent to exhibit the sort of impulse-control requried to keep anger in check.
Emotions Running Things
One of the things I really loved about this movie was how it showed us that emotions drive things. In the film, five emotions (joy, sadness, fear, anger, and disgust) work from headquarters where they drive decision making, thought, memory, personality, etc. The movie showed us how a previously happy memory can become a sad memory just based on how we think about it. While Joy seems to run things most of the time, the four other emotions have plenty of input. Disgust decides what Riley eats, Fear wakes her up when she has a nightmare, and Anger makes one of the most important decisions in the movie, for Riley to run away.
Impulsive Decision Made by Anger
When Riley is really struggling with the move and feeling at her worst, anger steps in with the decision to run way. The goal is to move back to Minnesota where she was last happy and develop some new happy memories. The decision is made in anger at a time when Joy is away from headquarters and it reflects that exact sort of semi-irrational thinking that happens when someone is angry, sad, scared, etc. What’s more, when the emotions start to think that running away may have been a bit drastic, they discover that, like a lot of angry decisions, it can’t easily be undone.
An Expanded Control Panel
Another subtle and powerful emotion metaphor throughout the movie is the control panel the emotion characters use throughout the movie. In the beginning, when Riley is an infant, it’s but a single button. As she matures, though, the control panel expands to reflect the additional ways emotions can be experienced, expressed, understood, and even used. There are brief moments in the movie when they show us what's going on in other people's heads and what you see is an even more elaborate control panel for adults to demonstrate that, as you mature, your emotional experience becomes more complicated and more neuanced.
Anger Can Be Useful
Although Anger is usually shown as aggressive, there’s clear acknowledgement at a couple of points that anger is important and even useful. Anger is shown motivating Riley on the hockey rink, and the Anger character’s introduction at the beginning of the movie describes anger has making sure things are fair. It’s an important reminder that emotions don’t just drive our thoughts and behaviors, that they are useful and important... even the seemingly negative emotions like anger, fear, and disgust.