American psychologist Paul Ekman pioneered the study of human emotions creating an atlas of thousands of emotions. These can be boiled down into seven: anger, contempt, fear, disgust, happiness, sadness and surprise.
For Disney Pixar’s latest film, Inside Out, we start with the basics.
A child, Riley, is born. In her head she experiences her first emotion and Joy (Amy Poehler) steps into the void. A bubbly, bouncy, excitable character who controls a console in Riley’s head dictating how she reacts to any given situation. She’s quickly joined by Anger (Lewis Black), Sadness (Phyllis Smith), Fear (Bill Hader) and Disgust (Mindy Kaling). Thus making up five of Ekman’s seven key emotions (surprise and contempt not making the cut being similar to anger and disgust I imagine, and for the film’s sake, seven are too many characters).
With this film, Pixar, in all their inventiveness, have laid out how the human mind works in a way that’s fully accessible to children and adults alike. For example, to begin with they introduce us to how memories are formed and how they’re attached to the emotions; glowing orbs that roll into Riley’s mind, each colour representing the overriding emotion linked to that memory. From a few scenes we quickly understand the concept of long and short-term memory and ‘core memories’ that form the building blocks of one’s personality, in this case Riley’s. These power the fundamental aspects of her personality: friendship, family, her love of hockey etc. We also understand how the five characters/emotions fight for supremacy when faced with certain situations and how they defer leadership to each other.
For example, for most of Riley’s life Joy has ruled the roost (and her emotions). Then the family move to San Francisco and Riley loses her friends and everything she has known and her personality changes irrevocably. Joy finds herself increasingly unable to control Riley’s mind and the other emotions. This was the building block – and brain child – of director Pete Docter, and the idea upon which he based the story.
As things go from bad to worse for Riley (at least in her head, moving to San Francisco can’t be that bad surely?), Joy and Sadness find themselves out of brain HQ and marooned in her long-term memory. So theirs becomes a journey movie, as they must get back in control of Riley’s mind and back to HQ. At least, that’s Joy’s plan. Sadness sort of tags along for the ride dragging her down.
The way Docter and Pixar personified these emotions in order to explain growing up, being a child and the loss of innocence, is remarkable and, at times, quite heartbreaking (the loss of Goofball Island brought a tear to my eye). Rarely has a film so succintly laid out the inner machinations of a person’s mind before. We get Imagination Land, the Train of Thought, Dream Production, even the corridor of Abstract Thought. It’s like Google decided to set up an office in someone’s mind and let loose (scarily, this may happen in the future).
And just to prove it’s not just Riley (and young girls) the filmmakers understand, at certain points they dive inside other character’s heads to hilarious effect. More jokes for the adults than the kids, but the balance between pleasing audiences old and young is never an easy thing, and here Docter and his team makes it look easy.
Like a mash up between Alice in Wonderland and Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, this is is a movie which tackles big themes and complex issues in an almost effortless way. It will make you laugh and cry (definitely if you’re a parent) and, as long as you understand the importance of – and why we need – both, then the filmmakers will, no doubt, feel their work is done. Hurrah Pixar, add this to your classics.