Mum turned 65 over the weekend, an obvious occasion to celebrate. The celebrations included a big decadent family meal followed by a trip to the cinema. We picked Inside Out- the latest Disney Pixar release. For years now, our movie-viewing lists have been decided by the youngest member of the family- my son, who turns 7 this October. Anyone with little children will see exactly what I mean. To my surprise though, I have enjoyed every children’s film almost as much as my son. Inside Out, happens to be exceptional. I can’t decide, which of us enjoyed it more. For one, we haven’t stopped talking about the movie since watching it on Saturday. My son is so full of questions and observations about it, that while answering them I have started to realise how complex the film really is. What’s incredible about it, is that it manages to concretise one of the most intangible things- human emotions. It deftly goes about explaining the nuances of the inner-workings of one’s mind, even the subconscious, in the simplest and easiest possible way. I doubt this has been done before through an animation film targeting little children. It is so effective in its story telling, that it works perfectly well for grown-ups too. There were many adolescents and adults in the theatre, all of whom seemed to enjoy the film. They’d laugh and applaud on cue, but I’m not sure if they realised the many levels the script seems to work on. While the film is ostensibly for children, I suspect there’s quite a lot there for an older audience too. If you haven’t seen it yet, I’d really recommend that you do. Why don’t we share notes afterwards?
The film is essentially about a pre-pubescent girl- Riley. When her family moves from Minnesota to San Francisco, the changes are too much for her to handle. A normally cheerful Riley starts to feel lost, can’t quite find her bearings in the new city or school and has no friends. A pro at ice hockey, in frozen Minnesota, she can’t even find her peace in the artificial ice-rink in her new city. The film describes her state of mind in the most ingenious way- by taking us physically into her brain, where we see a bizarre landscape populated by the many centres that keep her upright and functioning normally. Her ‘headquarters’ are linked to her main emotional anchors- the core aspects of her personality depicted as a series of islands: family island, friendship island, goof-ball island (fun), hockey island and honesty island. These are the building blocks of her identity. But as Riley struggles to cope with her life-changes, her basic emotion- Joy is tinged with Sadness. Both emotions are depicted as female characters. Joy, painted a bright yellow and Sadness, predictably blue. Each time Riley tries to get back on her feet and navigate her way out of the crises, Sadness intervenes, to the point that she touches Riley’s ‘core memories’ depicted as a series of balls stored up in a massive library of racks. While attempting to correct the course, Joy gets sucked into a seeming wasteland on the edges of Riley’s consciousness accompanied by Sadness. The two are engaged in a gripping roller-coaster as Joy tries literally to pull Sadness out of the shadows in vain through most of the movie and somehow make it back to HQ, which seems to slip farther away with each successive attempt.
In the meantime, there are three other emotions left in-charge of HQ- Fear, Disgust and Anger. As you might imagine, this makes for quite a deadly combination. While these three try to keep Riley afloat, the result is a veritable disaster. Riley inexplicably breaks down while trying to introduce herself at the new school, she can’t bring herself to confide in her parents about what she’s experiencing, withdraws from her best friend in Minnesota, gets into an unnecessary and unprovoked argument with her parents at dinner-time, which ends in an explosion of anger…in all, Riley is a mess.
The rare occasions when Riley and her emotions do get a break is when she finally gets to sleep. As she hits the REM phase, we’re introduced to a hyper-active brain, busy producing dreams. These dreams come out of a fantastical film-studio, with a range of bizarre characters- people, animals, the works. The dreams change unpredictably as they normally do, with new characters stepping in depending on which emotion is at work. During this chaotic interplay of emotions, there are also amazing detours to Riley’s ‘subconscious’! A labyrinth, amazingly pictured with staircases leading into hidden dark alleys that bend into even deeper corners. There, Joy and Sadness are constantly startled by Riley’s latent fears- from the sudden burst of sound coming from her grandma’s vacuum cleaner to the fearsome giant body of the clown- Jangles from her many birthday parties. And you also get to meet Riley’s endearing imaginary friend- Bing-Bong- with a body of pink cotton-candy, that’s part elephant (with a trunk), part cat- bushy-tailed, has striped legs, and oddly drips hard candies from his eyes every time he cries. He’s Riley’s forgotten imaginary friend, trying desperately to re-enter the HQ of her control centre. He helps Joy and Sadness find their way back out of the maze in her head, by hitching a ride on Riley’s “train of thought”.
As the plot progresses, Riley hits the wall time and again, leaving her sad and miserable. Without Joy in command she is unable to find her balance and lunges from one heart-tugging moment to another, as we see her many core- centres collapse. Joy persistently tries to walk the tight rope to each of Riley’s personality islands, just to find them shattering under pressure, one after another. Riley crashes her last island- ‘honesty’, when she steals money from her mother’s wallet to buy a bus ticket to return to Minnesota. She practically runs away, like many young people do. In her confused emotional state, she feels she might find her equilibrium by simply revisiting the city where she once belonged, while forgetting that the sense of normalcy she felt, actually came when she was with her family and friends, had fun and played hockey. After having abandoned each of those ‘core areas’, in moments of irrationality, she is still clinging to the mistaken notion that Minnesota, minus her family is the answer to her woes.
The plot turns when Joy suddenly realises that while she has been trying to suppress Sadness all along, it might be this emotion that holds the key to linking her back to HQ. Sadness, who is always sulking or trying to hide from view comes to life when Joy asks for her help to restore order inside Riley. This is the turning point, when Riley comes to her senses as it were, and steps off the bus to Minnesota mid-way. She returns home to face-up to the truth with honesty in front of her parents. She doesn’t realise then, that her change of course implies affirmative action in getting on top of her predicament.
Once she’s home, there’s an emotional scene where she breaks down before her parents and comes clean on what she has been going through. This ‘Sadness’ she experiences proves to be the glue, to bring mom and dad back to Riley. As they hug and promise to set things right together, the warmth of that embrace repairs her broken emotions. There’s an outburst of emotions where Anger, Fear and Disgust, all rise to the occasion to let Joy and Sadness break through the glass-panes that are blocking them from the HQ. Once Joy and Sadness are both in, Sadness is in the saddle to bridge the way for Joy to finally kick in. From there on, Riley’s back on track. She has a brand-new confidence, from her experience of having been down in the dumps and back. We get to see a brand-new console take shape inside her brain- one with a whole lot of shinier and flashy buttons. The broken bits are welded and soldered, all emotions have found their seats and are less confused and crucially, Joy and Sadness discover a harmony, they didn’t know before!
When all of this unfolds in 3D with surround sound in a darkened cinema hall, its not easy for an adult to imagine the impact on the mind of a toddler. But from the barrage of questions we have had to answer as a family, I think, the effect was nothing short of profound on the impressionable mind of my little son.
Interestingly, the character he most identified with was, ‘Anger’! As a parent, that set off alarm bells for me at first. Parents, I think are coded to imbue their offspring wrongly with only the positive elements. In hind-sight I realise that I tried quite hard to make him see the value and significance of Joy, by trying to get him to identify with it. I remember repeating several times that Joy was most important as it is a ‘positive’ emotion. I also insisted that ‘Anger’ was negative and hence destructive and he should try to distance himself from it. While this was just me being a well-meaning mother, what I was trying to also do is undo the good work the film and its makers had done. They tried to convey the importance of all the emotions in their right proportion, while I tried to make the negative ones seem unnecessary and dispensable.
By day two, I began to realise I was making a hash of interpreting things. I changed tack to explain that Sadness and Anger are both required and good, though in the right measure. I also realised that one other reason for my son identifying with Anger could be the fact that it was one of the few characters that was ‘male’. Fear was male too, but only a very fearful person will identify with it as the primary character. My son pointedly asked me one night before going to bed if Joy was a girl. That’s when I became convinced about the gender-typing through the narrative. I tried to explain that it was just the way the story had been told, and emotions were not feminine or masculine.
It has been hard over the days to explain that there really aren’t any ‘little people’ of varying colours living and talking inside our heads. It has also been hard to explain that ‘Anger’ is not ‘cool’ and its primary purpose is not to “destroy and beat” the others up, as my son believes. But I’m glad we’ve finally come to the understanding that each emotion has its role and significance and that we’ve understood why it’s as important to feel sad, as it is to feel happy, afraid, angry or disgusted. That a good cry can leave you much lighter, relieved and happier!
As we go, we’ve also come to an understanding that its Riley who actually pulls the strings. That she controls who should run the show, because she’s the owner of the brain, which houses the ‘little people”. A part of me is trying to use Yoga to explain this to my boy. Sadhguru Jaggi Vasudev talks extensively about the interplay of the physical body, mind and emotions. He talks about the power of meditation to create a situation where, your mind is your slave, rather than being your boss. He talks of using Yoga to first discipline one’s body into stillness, and through that to force the mind to become still too. From that point of stillness, he says it is possible to instruct your mind to do what you wish it to do. This is essentially self-control where you are on top of your mind and body, and in charge. From there, it should be possible to control your emotions, their expression and the reaction to those emotions. Of course that kind of power only comes with understanding and maturity, but knowing that such a thing is possible is empowering, considering that most of us succumb to their first impulse.
I guess, this is a great deal of wishful thinking on my part right now. I doubt my efforts will spare me the experience of eventually seeing my son struggle with the horrors of puberty or the terrors of adolescence. But regardless, I’m really glad a film like ‘Inside Out’ got made. I’m even more glad, we got to see it together as a family. It’s heartening to see a child grappling with so many complex ideas simplified so appealingly for him to grasp. I think it’s really important that people of every age start to talk about how they feel and what they think about how they feel. The value of emotions and empathy have often been underrated in our quest to feed the intellectual appetite. This film hits that goal- it gets you thinking and talking about your emotions.
The approach of the movie may not be terribly scientific, but if it gets viewers across the board to visit the recesses of their minds to explore hidden ideas, forgotten and unacknowledged memories, realise the potential of ‘negative’ emotions to unlock the ‘positive’ ones, all in the form of popular entertainment with popcorn on the side, what more can one ask for? Paisa Vasool 🙂