I’m glad a prepubescent boy wasn’t the star of Inside Out.
I’m not sure I’d be writing about how emotionally perceptive and even enlightening the movie was had Anger and, let’s face it - Bored, Pissed off and Horny - been hogging the controls.
Inside Out is the Oscar-nominated Disney-Pixar movie that gave second quarter sales of Kleenex a boost when it was released in the summer last year. Riley, a happy, 11-year-old hockey-playing girl is uprooted from her “Minnesota nice” and dropped into weird-ass San Francisco when her dad’s job moves the family cross-country. Suddenly she finds herself adrift in an alien world of California girls and broccoli pizza. The movie steps inside her head and follows five characters who personify her competing emotions as they battle to guide her through the turmoil. Aside from being a riveting, character-packed Disney-hero quest through the inner cortex, the movie faced a conundrum – how to explain the complicated science of emotions in a way a toddler could understand. How did they fare? Well, in August last year I was invited to a four-year-old’s Sadness birthday party. I guess that’s a pretty good sign.
A confession. I’m a dad – albeit one of those young, try-not-to-look-like-a-dad ones. I saw Inside Out on Father’s Day with my four-year-old daughter, and watched it through two sets of eyes. After repeating lines from Rainbow Unicorn and discussing Disgust’s eyelashes, the ten-minute conversation we had in the car afterwards about feeling what we feel and the importance of sadness, is not the kind of post-movie chat you get after Alvin and The Chipmunks.
That we had a conversation like that is anything but coincidental. The film was inspired by real life - actual, relatable, ordinary you-and-me real life, rather than the real lives of thirty-three Chileans stuck down a mine, or a 19th Century fur trapper who was not-really-raped by a bear. Pete Docter, the film’s director, and the mind behind Up and Monsters Inc., was the parent of an uprooted 11-year-old girl who went from being a goofy, happy, laid back kid, to withdrawn, aloof and quiet. Inside Out charts the adventures of Riley, Joy and Sadness, but behind it is the story of a real father trying to connect with his real daughter, and understand where she went. Perhaps that’s why it gets everything so right.
Aside from being a riveting, character-packed Disney-hero quest through the inner cortex, the movie faced a conundrum – how to explain the complicated science of emotions in a way a toddler could understand.
Dacher Keltner, Professor of Psychology UC Berkeley, told me the portrayal of Sadness as the real star of the movie was a triumph.
“We have too long been afraid of sadness, suppressed it, even medicated it, but sadness is inherent to living as a human, for loss is part of life. And sadness makes us value what we have lost, it brings people closer to us, it gives us wisdom,” he says.
Keltner acted as a consultant for the movie as it developed. He first met Pete on a conference panel about emotional expression, then some time later received a phone call, asking him to come in and talk to the Pixar team.
“As the movie nicely reveals, each negative emotion serves important functions that are beneficial for the individual - fear keeps us away from peril when experienced in the right context and to the right degree. Meanwhile, anger is often about the sense of being treated unfairly, and can be a motivator for social change. So in the more general sense, it's so powerful to recall that negative emotions have their place in human social life,” Keltner says.
But it’s one thing talking emotional theory and academics, quite another to see those ideas rendered into characters on screen, and sold as plush toys in Target. Now sitting at various screenings, Keltner was astonished at how the film is teaching children essential scientific insights.
“I had many parents reach out to me to tell me that Inside Out taught their children - who was on the autism spectrum or had experienced childhood trauma - how to make sense of emotion,” Keltner says.
At Sundance this year the Directing Award for a U.S. Documentary went to Life Animated, a documentary from the Oscar-winning director Roger Ross Williams. The film explores the idea of how animated movies can teach children about society and the world around them. Specifically it’s a documentary about Owen Suskind, a boy on the autistic spectrum who at three years old stopped talking. As he gets older, his breakthroughs in communicating and making sense of the chaos of real life were facilitated through Disney movies.
Owen started speaking, in what his parents first dismissed as gibberish, but when listening more closely, they realized he was repeating lines from Disney movies. The turning point came at his brother Walter’s birthday party when Owen was six and he spoke his first complex sentence: “Walter doesn’t want to grow up,” Owen said, “Like Mowgli or Peter Pan.” Later that day, Ron, Owen’s dad picks up a hand puppet of Iago, the evil sidekick parrot from Disney’s Aladdin, and Owen turns to it like an old friend. Ron puts on Iago’s voice, “Owen, how does it feel to be you?” and Owen says, “Not good because I don’t have any friends.”
Over time the family realize that Owen has memorized all the dialogue from every Disney movie. And through these beloved cartoons, Owen was able to use fiction to make sense of reality – grappling with ideas of identity through Dumbo, loneliness through Bambi, and loss through The Lion King. Through the love and creativity of his family, namely his father Ron, who wrote the best-selling book Life, Animated, on which the film is based, Owen is able to unlock a hidden but incredible potential of Disney movies.
“Movies, and of course literature, teach us how to imagine the emotions of others and how to see emotion in our social lives,” says Keltner, “I think in large part because they are some of our first efforts to understand the great themes of social living -- courage, loss, injustice, compassion.”
It’s easy when we “grow up” to dismiss the power of animated movies, not just as entertaining films and classic stories, but as tools to help children make sense of the world. The empathetic characters in Disney movies helped Owen process his emotions, just as the world of Inside Out helped a new generation of kids face up to more difficult thoughts and feelings. Which presents a weird tension as the father of an impressionable child, one finger hovering over the fast forward button. You can skip the bits you don’t want them to see, but maybe the point of the movie are the bits you want to skip. Maybe Disney wasn’t twisted when he ordered that Bambi’s mother should be shot, Cinderella bullied and locked in the attic, and Alice take hallucinogens. Guillermo Del Toro speaks of his first love as a child being monsters. He identified with them before anything else. Stories and emotions help us organize the way we think, our social perceptions, judgments and worldview.
At Jeff Goldsmith’s 9th Annual Screenwriting Nominee Panel at the LA Film School we were able to ask Meg LeFauve and Josh Cooley, the writers of Inside Out, if they were conscious of the power of the story as they were writing it.
“We never thought consciously as we were writing Inside Out that people could use this to talk to their kids – because remember, we have things in pieces and we’re just trying to write a great story,” said Meg, who is the mother of a child with special needs, “but I was recently at an event and a woman walked up to me and said ‘I’m an emergency responder psychiatrist for trauma in LA and your movie has been invaluable for me to help talk to these kids on the day.’ So what the movie has been able to do out in the world, it sounds cliché but it is the best reward we could get."
Maybe Disney wasn’t twisted when he ordered that Bambi’s mother should be shot, Cinderella bullied and locked in the attic, and Alice take hallucinogens.
Disney Movies always carry a positive message, though they’re often more like the epithet in a fortune cookie or Hallmark sentiment in a roll of Sweethearts: “Have courage and be kind” or “Follow your heart.” What elevates Inside Out is both its emotional complexity, and exhortation to “Embrace Sadness.”
Inside Out scooped a BAFTA for Best Animation last week. Pete Docter, accepting the award used the platform to say:
"Our film takes place inside the mind of an 11-year-old girl. That was tough to figure out – but it's not as hard as being 11. So anyone out there who is in secondary school and is feeling angry, scared or sad, please express yourself. Draw, act, write – the world will be better for it."
Or as Del Toro would say, “to all the monsters in my nursery: may you never leave me alone.”
Inside Out is nominated for 2 Oscars including Animated Feature Film, and Original Screenplay (Pete Docter, Meg LeFauve, Josh Cooley, Ronnie del Carmen)
Davey Spens is a Creative Director at Pulse Films pulsefilms.com
Dacher Keltner is the Professor of Psychology UC Berkeley and the author of Born To Be Good: The Science of A Meaningful Life