Tuesday, November 17, 2015

Psych 101: Pixar' Inside Out

Disgust, Anger, Joy, Sorrow and Fear @ Riley HQ
Just finished watching the latest Pixar gem Inside Out. I intended to watch it on DVD while doing something else, but the beginning is so compelling I just couldn't detach my retinas.

There are really two stories in this animated film, just as there are two stories in most of our lives. There is the external story where we move about from place to place geographically in the space-time continuum. And then there's our inner story where our various emotions reside, with experiences of their own. Inside Out is primarily about the five characters who express themselves within our heads and define our personalities -- Joy, Sadness, Anger, Disgust and Fear. The movie does a great job of showing how the memories that accompany us through life impact us, often comforting and sometimes shackling us.

As with many a story there's a problem that the hero must resolve, the hero's quest. And the Pixar story is no different. Just as Woody and Buzz must find their way home (in Toy Story), so it is that two of the characters -- Joy and Sadness -- somehow get whisked away from Riley's Head-quarters so that Anger, Disgust and Fear are all that Riley has left.

Making memories that will reside in Family Island
Ah, yes... Riley. The external world story is about a girl named Riley whose family moves with her family from Minnesota (a world of good memories) to San Francisco, which becomes a challenge for various reasons, not the least of which is being alone and tentative about her new life.

One of the unexpected characters we meet, during the journey of Joy and Sadness in their effort to get back "home" to the place where they belong inside Riley's head, is the hilarious forgotten imaginary friend from Riley's early years, Bing Bong. Bing Bong strives to help them in their journey, but he's a bit of a doofus and his leadership at various points creates more setbacks than solutions. Nevertheless, he's fun to have along.

Although this is the inner story of Riley's life, the main storyline seems to be about Joy's journey. When Joy is absent from headquarters, where she belongs, how empty our lives become.

One of the scenes I enjoyed was in the kitchen where Riley's parents are trying to deal with Riley after her first day in school. The same five emotions live inside her parents as well, and when we go inside Mom's head we see her inner emotions trying to dissect the situation, to determine a course of action. Then we go inside Dad's head and see he is initially oblivious because he's following a game on his smartphone. Finally his own Anger step up, for Riley is interfering with his own Joy.

Ah, how much fun we had being silly when we were kids.
It's probable that some folk might see the film as overly simplistic psychobabble, but it's a children's flick and yes, like The Velveteen Rabbit or Beauty & the Beast, there are story lines for the kids and for the parents who share memories with their kids.

One of our favorite books when we were raising our own kids was Let's Make a Memory. (My fact checker has noted that I never read this book, but liked the idea of its premise.) The importance of good memories cannot be underemphasized. Inside Out underscores this key truth as well, showing us the various "amusement parks" where such memories reside.

Each of Riley's core memories build the island that make Riley Riley: Hockey Island, Goofball Island, Friendship Island, Honesty Island, Family Island etc. Imagination and exploration and environment all contribute to to the whole, and for the sake of this story it is a wholesome whole.

After thinking about the story for a day I wondered if there was something missing from this entertaining film. I'm thinking here of my inner narrative, out self talk. Are we really only a bundle of emotions responding to inputs? Somehow this simplification goes too far, and may even be part of the problem we have as a society. Emotions respond to thoughts, which are interpreting the inputs of our experience. How we talk to ourselves, interpreting the inputs, produces emotional effects. We consider people immature who do not reign in their emotions, who let their emotions continually get the best of them.

Woo hoo when Joy is in ascendency. 
Overall, though, the story is well told, engaging, entertaining, and fun. The writing is good, the Pixar animation up to snuff, and it even begins in Minnesota.

There are a lot of subtle touches as one might expect in a well-conceived and executed Pixar flick. For example, when Riley and her family arrive in San Francisco, she's wearing a sweater comprised of the colors of the five emotion-characters inside her head. What we are on the inside is revealed on the outside. Or so it is with Riley.

One thing missing from the film are memorable songs, though I didn't initially notice till after. The Lego Movie has "Everything Is Awesome" and Elton John's soundtrack for The Lion King was stellar. This did not, however, diminish my enjoyment of the movie.

All in all, another stellar offering from the Pixar Hit Factory.

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Two decades ago I produced a story that deals with one of the roles memories play, and their special importance in our lives. It's called The M Zone, and it's a bit darker than this tale. I invite you to read it. You'll find it here at ennyman.com.

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