ByAlexandra Ekstein-Kon, writer at
Editor at MP. Twin Peaks, Mr. Robot, a bit of this, a bit of that. Tweet me at @alexa_ekon
Alexandra Ekstein-Kon

Over the years, Pixar has brought us some of the most candid and touching animated films since its first feature-length film came to the big screen in 1995. From Toy Story to The Incredibles to Ratatouille, the creators behind Pixar movies have been able to consistently enthrall audiences of all ages, while often tackling intricate subject matters in a unique and comprehensible way. Their latest endeavor, Inside Out - from what can be gathered from early reviews - might just be their best feature to date.

Scenes that tug at our heartstrings are not new to Pixar (how could we forget Ellie and Carl in the intro to Up?), but this time they aim to tackle the subject of emotional reactions directly. The movie is about an 11-year-old girl, Riley, who is uprooted from small town Minnesota when her family moves to the West Coast. Most of the movie takes place within her mind, where five personified emotions (Joy, Sadness, Anger, Disgust, and Fear) all work at the controls, with each getting their turn, depending on the situation in which Riley finds herself.

But the film does more than just personify emotions in a creative way. The filmmakers also received help from two renowned psychologists, Dacher Keltner (professor of psychology at UC Berkeley) and Paul Ekman (a pioneering researcher in the field of psychology), who answered all their queries on typical emotional responses. As such, Riley's emotional journey is not only deeply moving, it's also (mostly) scientifically accurate.

Personifying Emotions Using Shape and Color

In an interview with NPR (National Public Radio), Pete Docter, the director of Inside Out, talked about how shapes played a key part in developing the physical attributes of the emotions:

"Joy just feels kind of outwardly like an explosion, so she's like a star in her shape, and she spends a lot of time with her arms and legs stretched out. Anger just felt confined - like brick, like he's a square. Fear is kind of like a raw nerve, he's just like this angular guy. Disgust was sort of based on broccoli in her shape and color. And Sadness was kind of like a teardrop, her hair is almost like a waterfall coming down."

Here's a clip from Inside Out showing what's going on in Riley's mind as her father attempts to feed her the dreaded broccoli:

Dacher Keltner, a professor of psychology at UC Berkeley and one of the psychologists advising on the film, also applauded the way the filmmakers used color to visually represent how a dominant emotion can change how we perceive the world. For example, when Riley is sad, even her happy memories are shown in a blue tint; what a beautiful way to illustrate something we all relate to.

What Does the Film Get Right About Human Psychology?

Keltner particularly praised the film's accuracy in depicting what it's like to be an 11-year-old girl:

"It zeroes in on one of the most poignant times in an individual's life, which is the transition to the preteen and early teen years, where kids — and, I think, in particular girls — start to really powerfully feel the loss of childhood."

This is also in accordance with the director's aim for the film. Docter stated:

"I wanted to kind of capture that sense of what it is to lose childhood and when that passes on it's gone forever."

The movie also does an excellent job of illustrating how we can sometimes lose touch with our emotions. The scene where Joy and Sadness are lost near the long-term memory section beautifully represents how we can sometimes feel imbalanced when some of our predominant emotions are pushed to the background.

Check out the clip here:

NPR also went on to note that:

The filmmakers get a lot of other scientific details right. Inside Riley's head, you see memories get locked in during sleep, experiences transformed into abstractions, and guards protecting the subconscious.

Clearly the filmmakers did their homework!

A Nuanced Depiction of Sadness

Keltner was particularly impressed by the depiction of Sadness in the film, highlighting it one of our most important emotions. In regards to the scene above, where Sadness and Joy get lost in the depths of Riley's mind, Keltner said:

"There is a literature on how sadness makes us see things wisely, and the fact that Sadness remembers those manuals of how the mind works - I think it's a nice statement about how important Sadness is to our understanding of who we are."

In fact, their depiction of Sadness is also quite relevant to modern discourse around depression. For the most part, sadness has often been treated as a negative and unnecessary emotion that is best forgotten about, or something to be ashamed of. However, Inside Out demonstrates that Sadness is actually an incredibly necessary emotion, with unique introspective and contemplative capacities that are key to our survival. I cannot help but think that showing sadness in a positive and more accepting light also encourages more useful dialogue in the current discussion around depression.

So, What Isn't So Psychologically Accurate?

While Riley only has five predominant emotions, most psychology textbooks depict humans as having six. However, it just seems that Surprise didn't have enough going for it. During an NPR interview, Pete Docter stated:

"As I was sort of doodling I was thinking, 'Surprise and fear — probably fairly similar.' So let's just lose surprise and that left us with five."

Professor Keltner also noted that Disgust has a more downplayed and simplified role in the movie than the one it actually takes in our heads, as revolution also plays a key role in the varying levels of disgust.

Art Can Help Us Understand Ourselves

Ultimately, while Inside Out is a creative journey through the mind of an 11-year-old girl, it gives us a visual representation of something that happens in all of our minds. The loving way in which the Pixar creators chose to illustrate emotions lends itself equally well to provoking thoughts on the human mind and the way that we process information, and how emotions can color the way that we see the world.

It seems like the guys at Pixar have outdone themselves once again, giving us all what we'd hoped for and more on a wonderful tour through one of the strangest places you can ever possibly go: the human mind.

(Sources: NPR 1, NPR 2, NPR 3)


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