'Inside Out'

A good resource for parents, teachers and therapists

Posted Dec 07, 2015

Recently, I watched the movie Inside Out with my family. It was a long weekend and we were looking for something to do. None of us wanted to leave the house so we went to home video. The version I watched included bonus materials: two extra videos, introspective interviews with the actors, and an overview of the creative process. It was these bonus materials that made the experience fascinating.

Inside Out is a PIXAR animated film about a preteen girl, her family, changes in her life, and her emotions. The director, Pete Docter, claims he was inspired by observing the mood changes in his preteen daughter. He said that a girl (his daughter) who was perfectly stable and level headed at nine seemed erratic at 13, as if she had reversed in her development. In his search to understand his daughter, he interviewed many experts on development and neuroscience. From this, evolved an animated film on emotions and memory.

As I was watching the film, I kept asking myself, “is this art or science?” I was absolutely delighted by the animation. The shapes, forms, colors, characters and voices delighted the eye and charmed the heart.  Five characters represented five basic emotions (and this is pretty solid science). Joy with her boundless energy vitalizes. Sadness is small, droopy and blue. Anger is short and hot and red. Fear is tall and thin. And disgust…well, disgust was a little underdeveloped as a character. Even so, the symbolization of the characters was excellent.  The animators did a very good job of capturing these emotions, visually and auditorially.

As an art form, the movie felt cluttered. There was too much going on. It switched between an animated 11-year-old girl and all these hectic things floating around in her head. But, maybe that is just the point….normal chaos. Anyway, her longterm memory was symbolized by something that looked small, solid bowling balls organized in computerized columns. While not a bad metaphor for the brain, it didn’t work for me visually. It felt like a wild and hectic Disney ride in expansive and disorganized space, something combining spinning tea cups, Toad’s Wild Ride, and Space Mountain. And then, there was headquarters (a pun?) symbolized by big spaceship-like windows looking out on the rest of the chaos. The plot could have been simpler and tighter. It felt silly, circuitous, winding, and chaotic. But, again, perhaps it was intended that way.

When I came to really appreciate the film was in the bonus materials. This included two charming animated shorts, one with a boy-girl theme. The director and animators were interviewed and they described the creative process. This I found fascinating. As I mentioned earlier, the director was searching to understand his daughter and interviewed many experts. The animators explained the difficulties of symbolizing emotions in cartoon form, e.g. color choices, shapes, and voices. The bonus materials explained the difficulty of developing a cohesive story line combining all these discrepant parts. Constant revision, back and forth, starting over and team work all went into a smooth, final production. As I watched the creative process unfold, I better understood the movie, its intent and even its limitations. All of this fascinated me and I was reminded that it is easier to criticize than to create.

But, perhaps the greatest contribution was listening to the actors compare themselves to the characters, like Joy and Sadness. Very successful adult women, like Amy Poehler, who played Joy, and Phyllis Smith, the voice of sadness, talked about themselves, their inner feelings, their self-doubts, dreams, and perseverance. As I reflected on the teenage girl I once was, I wished so badly someone had talked to me like that, someone all grown up who made life look so easy. They had doubts? Fears? Obstacles? I came to see the film in another way, not as art and not as science but as an impetus for discussion—a wonderful tool for a mother and daughter, father and daughter, therapist and teen to watch and talk about together.