Thursday, June 25, 2015

Inside Out: The Parents' Heads

The kids and I saw the new Pixar movie Inside Out last night.  It's as good as everyone has been saying, and I agree with a lot that has been written about what an important movie this is for kids.  To have a representation of what it means for memories to be lost or viewed differently as you grow up is complicated fare for children, but it rings true, and may give many a better perspective on those ideas as they grapple with them in their own lives.  Plus, just being a good Pixar movie, it's clever and visually rich and has many jokes aimed squarely at adults that kids will grow to understand later which keeps it entertaining for everyone.  This movie will also provide you with a good cry.  (Only Mona didn't cry, but she almost never cries during movies.  She also roots for the raptors and the snakes over the bunnies, etc., during the nature shows we watch because "they have to eat too," so she's got a realistic streak that keeps her on an even keel when it comes to entertainment.  I cry at everything.)

In any case, without risking any real spoilers, I wanted to share my thoughts on one small segment of the film that I've been pondering since we left the theater: The scenes from inside the parents' heads.

The basic premise of Inside Out (for anyone who doesn't know--and this doesn't ruin anything in the film) is that everyone's mind has five anthropomorphized emotions running the main controls inside our heads, and those emotions are Joy, Sadness, Fear, Anger, and Disgust.  The story centers around an 11 year old girl named Riley, and we get to see how during her early childhood Joy is at the helm most of the time.  Fear helps keep her safe, Disgust and Anger crop up periodically, and Joy spends a lot of time keeping Sadness at bay.

But our lives change as we enter adolescence.  Different emotions start vying for the helm, and at one point in the movie when Riley is left with only Disgust, Fear, and Anger running things she is trying to get through dinner with her parents and it doesn't go well.  During that scene we get to enter the parents' heads and see how their minds are run.  (And, as I say, I don't think describing certain elements of what we see in there spoils the film in any way, but if you prefer to go into the theater knowing nothing stop reading here.)

Let me start by saying that the mom and dad are good parents.  They are both caring and involved and kind.  The dad is employed, but it was unclear to me if the mom was as well.  The script was careful not to give us much information to judge them by.  They are shown as reasonable and loving, with enough blank space to fill in with whatever we might want in order that they be likable and not dominate the story.  The parents are in no way the bad guys.  (I admire how with rare exceptions Pixar films don't really have bad guys, that the plots are driven by a struggle toward a goal and not by evil outside forces.)

When Riley beings acting annoyed at dinner her mother looks surprised and we get to see inside her head.  At first I was disturbed by the fact that her console is run by Sadness,  but maybe that's a truer representation of a mother's mind than I want it to be.  The point of the movie is to grapple with the idea of the "bittersweet," that all the emotions have a role to play and that they are not simple, and that Joy and Sadness can be present at the same time and that's okay.

I think the most brilliant part of the whole film is that as Riley grows up, Sadness is compelled to touch all of her memories.  What mother doesn't know that feeling?  Thinking back on my children as babies, or my own childhood, or times with my grandparents....those are all good memories that make me happy, and and the same time make me sad.  (Remember earlier when I said I cry at everything?)  We can't grow up without accepting loss as a part of life, so maybe Sadness at the helm of the mother's mind is appropriate, even if my first instinct was to be critical of it.

But the key to Sadness at the helm and have it be healthy is balance, and that was the upside of the mother's mind.  It was harmonious.  There were no frantic, out of control emotions there.  Everyone worked calmly together and had similar opinions about the events at hand.  Considering the potential stereotypes available of the over-emotional female character, I found this a welcome representation.

The father's mind in this scene, by comparison, had Anger at the helm.  His various emotions also worked in concert, but there was a much more forceful thrust to his decision making.  I was disturbed by Anger comfortably calling the shots for the father, except that one of the points of the film as a whole was again this idea that we need all of our emotions.  Anger did not have the best ideas, but was essential for taking action.  The father seemed tasked with providing for his family in a competitive city, so maybe Anger at the helm was necessary to accomplish what he needed to do.  It didn't make him bad, it just meant he wasn't capable of solving problems that weren't about dominance. 

The other interesting thing to note about the parents' minds compared to their daughter's was that the gender of all the emotions was uniform for them and mixed for her.  The mother's emotions were all female and looked like her.  The father's emotions were all male.  Riley's emotions were female for Joy, Sadness, and Disgust, and male for Fear and Anger.

Is everyone born with what they get?  Do they change with time and experience?  Could a child start one way and develop something else?  Maybe all children start out with a mix and it evolves?  Or maybe the parents were born at a time of more rigid gender roles and this is a generational difference?  Lots of possibilities to ponder, all of which raise interesting questions.

Anyway, an excellent movie.  I'm sure when the DVD appears there will be repeat viewings and I'm already looking forward to that.  I know there were details that went by too fast to appreciate in the theater.

I'm glad my kids are growing up in the age of Pixar.  So many beautiful, thoughtful, delightful movies to enjoy and look forward to!  They get to see classics right from the beginning, and I get to sit beside them as they do.  I love it.


  1. Thanks for this interesting take on the movie. I did notice that The Joy in the father's head was female, which throws some interesting wrenches in. Also, the father's Joy looked a lot like Riley's Joy.

    1. Oh, interesting, I missed that! The action was all focused on Anger and Fear talking about "Putting the foot down" so I obviously didn't get a good look at Joy. I'm sure there are a million details to catch on the next viewing someday.

  2. A very imaginative and interesting movie but, in my opinion, its not a "10." As others have said, some of the other Pixar movies are overall better movies - Toy Story, UP, Finding Nemo - to name a few... In this movie, the plot loses its way in the middle and end; and, some of the characters are not as well-developed as I would have hoped... Also, some of the movie may be too complicated for kids to easily follow and thus could get somewhat frustrated by the show. Still don't miss this - the approach and creativity is wonderful and worth seeing.

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  3. I just saw it yesterday / the day before for the first time (Dave and I watched it ourselves, then the next day with the kids) and I remember you wrote about it so I came back to get your perspective.

    Dave didn't like that the Dad was ruled by anger, probably because he doesn't make decisions that way himself. He did acknowledge it was true for a lot of me though. I actually completely understood the whole mom-run-by-sadness thing. Like you said, it's the idea of bittersweet and even happy memories having a sad component when you look back and realize they're over.

    I'm not sure I recommend the movie in the first few weeks post partum since I cried my eyes out 😀 But that might have happened anyway!

    I also liked their analogy for long term memories and how things are remembered / forgotten. Maybe because it's relevant to my job and how I educate people on how memory works.

    It's a complicated movie for sure but good for kids and I think Toby got something out of it (Owen, not so much). I think we'll be buying that one at some point!

    1. That second paragraph should say "men" not "me". Ironically I do think Anger is at the controls for me way too often, but that wasn't what Dave meant😀!

    2. There's a lot to think about, which is great for a kids' movie.

      And if you don't feel like crying your eyes out you may want to wait on the new Pixar movie: The Good Dinosaur. Took my kids and my niece to see that over Thanksgiving weekend and oh my lord I was so dehydrated by the end of it. I simply described the closing scene to my mom when I got home and she burst into tears!