Inside Out’s subtle cues

posted in: Creation, JustPlainCool, Movies | 0

Pixar’s Inside Out is a story that deals with emotion, literally.  Over the years, I’ve heard lawyers talk about how some law school professors use My Cousin Vinny in their classes to help illustrate certain things about court and handling a case in court; going forward, I can’t help but wonder if child psychologists and even plain old ordinary parents won’t be able to use Inside Out in the same fashion to help kids with their emotional growth.  Actually, people; not just kids.  Everyone could learn a few things from the film.

I really feel it’s kind of hard to gush too much about it.  Hopefully I’ll avoid getting you too wet, but my goal here isn’t to gush but to talk about subtleties in the story.  Pixar has always prided itself — and proven repeatedly — that it’s all about the story.  It never goes for a cheap stunt, and its stories are built in layers that make them appealing to everyone; not just those still counting their age in single digits.

Spoiler alert, but a core concept of the film is that joy can’t exist without sadness; that without the agony of despair, the highs of laughter can’t soar.  This is a very sophisticated message, but it’s laid out beautifully so that anyone can grasp it regardless of how mature — or rudimentary — their own ability to analyze and process their emotions may be.  There are lots of ways this is done.

The obvious is in how the plot plays out; in the earliest scenes we see baby Riley happy until she has a need that isn’t being met.  All babies, all people, have needs; and in babies, crying is their only signal that something needs doing.  Obviously, thankfully, as we grow we acquire other methods for handling and indicating these needs.  But in that initial scene, we see baby Riley happy, then Sadness pushes on the button.  As any parent knows — at least most of the time — after the need is handled, the baby will return to a content state.  Wet diaper, changed, everything’s cool again.  Hungry, fed, happy baby.  Feeling lonely, get held, good times.

As the movie plays out, we see Joy trying to shoulder Sadness aside.  In fact, it’s extremely fair to say Joy is quite rude to Sadness on multiple occasions.  Even before Sadness ‘contaminates’ some core memories with blue, Joy makes it pretty plain she thinks the whole operation would run quite well without Sadness even being there.  Never mind that, as we learn when the plot comes fully to fruition, Sadness needs to blueify those memories in order to lay the path for Riley to follow back to happiness.

It seems almost counter intuitive, but it’s true.  All joy doesn’t spring from sadness, but some situations cannot be gotten through until some sadness is dealt with.  In Riley’s case, she misses home — her old home in Minnesota — terribly, but doesn’t know how to voice or express it to her parents in a way that will let them help her deal with it.  At the movie’s climax, Sadness takes over and Riley’s outpouring of heartrending sorrow clues Mom and Dad in on their daughter’s feelings.  The family comes together, and we see Riley’s first complex emotional memory form; a bitter-sweet moment.  She’s sad for the things left behind, but happy that the three of them are still together and still a family.

Children see everything in absolutes; adults in infinite variations.  The story of Inside Out deals with Riley’s first steps towards this level of more involved emotional maturity.

I mentioned there are a lot of subtleties in the movie’s message.  Did you notice the emotions’ eye colors?  The three heads we see into the most are Riley’s — obviously — plus Mom and Dad.  But at the end of the film we also see into the girl-panicked boy at the hockey arena, Riley’s teacher, the pizza shop clerk, too-cool playground girl, birthday party clown, stuck-in-traffic bus driver, hungry dog, and confused cat.  In every case except the bus driver, because his emotions wear sunglasses that hide his eyes, every single Joy has blue eyes.  Every one.

All the Fears have purple eyes, the Angers red, the Disgusts green, and the Sadnesses blue.  Only Joy doesn’t match eye color to overall color as the other emotions do.  I thought it was a pretty interesting little thing Pixar slipped in there.  It can’t be an accident; it is too uniform.  Especially when the other four emotions follow their dominant color scheme.  Under that logic, Joy’s eyes would be yellow or gold; but they’re not.  Sadness is integral to Joy, always.

I wondered if Joy’s blue hair was another clue, but there’s something else going on there in my opinion.  Most of the emotions shown have the same style and color hair as their person (or animal).  The teacher’s emotions all have the dark frizzy hair, Mom’s all have mom’s brunette pony tail, and so on.  Except for two characters.  Riley’s Fear, Anger, Disgust, and Sadness all have color matched hair in distinct styles that don’t match Riley’s.  Well, Fear is bald except for a few strands (that are purple); and Anger’s completely bald but is red all over.  Joy has blue hair though, in a sort of rakish spiky style.

And Dad.  Dad’s emotions are the same as Riley’s in terms of hair.  The only difference between his and his daughter’s emotions are his have mustaches, and his all wear button up shirts with ties and trousers, while hers have five different modes of dress.  But only Riley’s and Dad’s Joys have the blue hair.

I’m less sure, for certain, what this might mean.  My theory is Riley and Dad are more alike than Riley and Mom.  There are some things in the movie to support this.  Dad’s really into hockey; so is Riley.  Dad and Riley both enjoy their goofy sides; it’s Dad who makes the monkey noises to Riley (that are reciprocated) and generally jokes around with her.  Dad’s the one that plays the airplane game to trick her into eating broccoli.  And when they arrive at the house and Mom and Dad are fighting, Riley starts a game of living room hockey to break the mood.  Dad joins right in; Mom doesn’t until Riley taunts her specifically.

I really like what Inside Out has to say.  It’s not just a ninety minute cartoon full of slapstick and sitcom situations; like nearly all other “kid’s” movies.  Pixar is Pixar because their stories are for everyone; and they do this by telling real stories, not just plot-by-the-numbers where “oh, main character has a quest, go on the quest and have some funny/scary/tense things happen, then all wraps up well and we’re out” like, again, nearly all other kids’ movies.  In fact, most other movies period; kid or adult aimed.

What’s one of, if not the, most common things someone says or thinks when they’re in the middle of a great moment.  A really happy moment, like a fantastic vacation or a cool concert or a fun party.  Think about your happy moments.  I bet you often say the following:

“I wish this would never end.”

Maybe you change it up slightly, trading wish for want or hope; but the thought is the same.  You’re in a state of pure joy, and you know it’ll stop at some point and you want that cessation to be put off as long as possible.  Even in the midst of joy, we know sadness is coming sooner or later.  But what’s one of the most common things we think when we’re sad:

“Cheer up.”

Again pairing sadness with joy.

There’s a joke meme I’ve seen on the Internet about Pixar’s storytelling craft, specifically about the Toy Story series.  In Toy Story some toys get lost, but are found again; just a little sadness.  Toy Story 2 deals with toys that get left behind by their owners; more sadness.  Toy Story 3 deals with how all toys will be outgrown, no matter how loved they once were; tears are everywhere and preschoolers need anti-depressants.  The joke is then that Toy Story 4 will have Woody stabbed by rogue toys and gets cancer of the voice box leading to a prolonged and painful death; no one ever smiles again.

It’s good for a laugh; I love Toy Story — the entire series — and even I laugh at it.  But it illustrates a thing about Pixar.  They know how to reach deep into people and hit emotions in a way that every single story creator wants to.  Every one.  Any creator that tells you they don’t care how their audience reacts is lying.  Pixar has gotten the knack for tickling the pull strings of Joy and Sadness and all the rest down to a mystical science.

Heck, let’s take another Internet meme.  This one goes, eight minutes of Up with no dialog, still a better love story than all four Twilight movies.  And while it’s funny, it’s also true.  I’ve shown the montage at the beginning of Up to a lot of people, everyone tears up or gets a little hoarse and has to clear their throat.  And it’s just a montage that sets up the rest of the movie.

Inside Out is an amazing film.  One of my bucket list items is to be able to meet John Lasseter, Andrew Stanton, Brad Bird, and Pete Docter.  I don’t know how, exactly, I’ll go about not just having a huge fan moment on them; but they’ve got the gift of storytelling and they’ve been sharing it with us for a while now.  I would really like to have the chance to talk with them about it.  In the mean time, I’ll have to content myself with enjoying what they create for us all.

If you haven’t seen Inside Out, you really should.