"Inside Out" Gives Voice to the Little Voices Inside Our Heads: Our Emotions

Disney/Pixar’s latest animation release gives voice to the little voices inside our heads: our emotions.


Inside Out tells the story of 11-year old Riley Anderson (charmingly played by Kaitlyn Dias) from two distinct perspectives. In one, we see well-adjusted Riley and her family move from their beloved home in Minnesota to a small apartment in San Francisco when her father gets a new job; in the other, we experience what Riley experiences inside her head where her emotions—Joy, Sadness, Anger, Fear, and Disgust—manage her reactions up in “headquarters.”

Much like a ride on the Magic School Bus, Pixar takes us directly inside Riley’s limbic system, where we voyeuristically peek inside to find a workplace drama, populated by a slightly dysfunctional set of co-workers, in what looks not unlike an air traffic control tower. The place is outfitted with one of those bowling-alley ball-return machines, which is how memories come in...like hefty bowling balls that ultimately get stored in the basement of long-term memory.

Joy (voiced by Amy Poehler) works as a dutiful project manager to keep memory storage upbeat and things running smoothly. She is foiled on occasion by Sadness, Phyllis Smith perfectly cast as the blue voice inside Riley’s head, who like a glum office worker comes across as insecure, a bit whiny and depressive, and Anger (Lewis Black) whose overprotective hotheadedness is amusingly unhelpful. Joy “manages” Sadness with pep talks and by giving her busy work to keep her out of trouble. In spite of Joy’s efforts, Sadness gets into all sorts of mischief, tainting happy “core” memories, and quietly wreaking havoc on the once-happy places within Riley’s brain.

Director Pete Docter says he was inspired to make the film, in part, by trying to understand his own adolescent daughter. There’s also an inspirational wink to parent-company Disney as the inside of Riley’s head bears a striking resemble to a constellation of Disney-styled theme parks which include Imagination Land, Cloud Town, and the various personality islands—Goofball Island, Hockey Island, Friendship Island, Honesty Island and Family Island. There’s even a special place called Dream Production, a studio where dreams are made.

As with other Pixar films, childhood for Riley is characterized by a whiff of innocence lost, like in Toy Story when Andy outgrew his lifelong pals. When Riley begins experiencing self-doubt, the theme-parks in her mind begin to crumble and sink as if built on landfill during an earthquake, and she finds the things that once made her happy no longer hold the same allure or comfort.

It’s easy to identify with young Riley and the hardships she faces on her first day of school, having to make new friends, dealing with a unfamiliar home, and hockey tryouts, a sport she once aced but suddenly struggles with. To make matters worse, her newly adopted  hometown manages to ruin even something as unassailably good as pizza, by putting broccoli on it. Bleh!

The movie is most successful when the two storytelling perspectives intertwine, as in the scene at the dinner table where little is said between Riley and her parents, while each person’s emotions roil inside air traffic control as they heatedly interpret the interpersonal dynamics with running commentary. Joy and Sadness get sucked out of headquarters winding up on a long, frustrating quest to get back, leaving Anger, Fear (Bill Hader) and Disgust (Mindy Kaling) at the helm, an imbalance that sets Riley on a dangerous course.

There are lots of clever puns and fun dialogue as the pair of emotions continually miss the Train of Thoughts, work through the labyrinthine maze of long-term memory, and ultimately meet Riley’s pivotal and long-forgotten imaginary friend, Bing-Bong.

As Riley’s missing emotions race to return to headquarters before more of the bedrock in her mind dissolves, the inner recesses they explore become increasingly dark, sparsely inhabited and carnivalesque. While Inside Out’s storyline is Pixar-clever, the road back to headquarters is long, and the psychological underpinnings of the story are neatly simplified with little mention of other emotions such as love, the role of the development of brain cells and neural pathways, or how the frontal cortex develops to help regulate emotions.

Still, in the end, most viewers will enjoy Inside Out's story of redemption through acknowledging the value of the less desirable emotions within. Bonus if it makes you more conscious of how you’re running your own show up in “headquarters.”

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