Critical Analysis: Inside Out

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Inside Out is a full-length cartoon motion film about an 11 year old girl called Riley, originally from Minnesota, who moves to San Francisco with her parents. The main characters of the movie, however, aren’t Riley and her family, but instead Riley’s main emotions – Joy, Sadness, Fear, Anger, and Disgust. These emotions illustrate to the viewer what it’s like in the mind of an 11 year old girl who struggles to come to terms with her parents decision to move to a strange city where she experiences the loss of her friends, her hockey team and just her general familiar surrounds. The movie illustrates Riley’s struggle with maintaining the pretence of happiness to her parents, which she finds very hard to do as she is anything but happy.

From a clinical psychology point of view, this film takes a surprisingly serious look at how our emotions affect us, and the impact they have on our ability to function in the form of a cartoon. It examines the process of thinking, feeling, and being through understanding our own emotions and what kind of an impact joy, sadness, fear, anger and disgust have on us and those around us. In reality, it probably talks to a more adult audience and fosters an awareness of our own cognitive process. As expatriates, which most of us in this country are, we are able to relate particularly well to what Riley is going through. I moved here when I was 9, so I have lived in the Gulf for more than half my life. I wasn’t born in the same country as my parents and I lived in 4 different countries before moving here so I can relate to what Riley is dealing with. My reality concerning moving homes may seem a little more dramatic than hers, but the loss one experiences with every move will be the same. Children will be able to watch the film and identify with Riley on a more basic a level, and with what she is experiencing, especially if they move around a lot. It might actually even be good for them to watch so they can realise what they are feeling is very normal. As expatriates who have lived a life on the move, we can especially relate to all the different emotions when leaving somewhere that we love and  we familiar with.

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Other ideas showed in this movie included the short to long-term memory. When a memory is seen as striking or memorable enough to us, or when it has been repeated enough times, the brain captures the long-term snippet and feeling of that memory and translates it into something very visual for us, it may even attach smell to the memory, which can make it even more vivid and powerful. Other ideas that are fleetingly touched on in the movie include changes one experiences when approaching puberty, stress, family pressure, and a number of other overwhelming, and very age appropriate emotions that a young developing 11 year old may not necessarily completely comprehend.

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Out of all 5 of Riley’s emotions, Joy seems to be the leader, she keeps the others in order, but reminds the viewers that all of them have an important role in Riley’s life. Joy suggests that Disgust keeps Riley safe from being poisoned, Fear keeps her safe from a disaster by imagining worst case scenarios, Anger protects her from others, whilst Joy makes sure that Riley is happy. However, like many of us when dealing with our personal understanding of life, especially at a young age, we sometimes fail to see the importance of the other emotions. The reality is if we are to come out “whole“ the other end, we need to allow ourselves to really feel all our emotions so we can work through the process. Riley needed to come to terms with the loss she was experiencing on a very real level when she left Minnesota and all that was familiar. By forcing herself to see only the good in her new situation, and live what felt like a lie by suppressing the truth of her feelings she became unable to see, and feel the good of her new home.  She became unhappy and depressed and needed to feel the anger, fear, sadness and disgust before she could rediscover her joy. Joy in the story fails to see the importance of Sadness, and tries to shoo Sadness away from anything Riley-related, forbidding this emotion in every way possible. She even draws a circle on the floor and makes Sadness stay inside it, forbidding her to leave, or to touch any of Riley’s memories, so as not to taint them with sad memories.

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As if Riley’s mind trying to keep Sadness at bay wasn’t enough, Riley’s parents put added stress and pressure on her, especially when her mother asks her to “keep smiling” for her dad. Riley’s mom, without meaning to do so, explains to Riley that being sad about the move wasn’t okay, and that she needs to pretend to be happy to support her father through this, as it is a very difficult time for him. In reality this is a lesson to parents to give their children the space to grieve the loss they are feeling.  It also encourages adults, and children to be honest about our feelings so we can heal, recover and learn to love the new.

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Joy’s behaviour is a metaphor for what Riley feels she needs to do, and this is underlined by her mothers well meaning support of her dad by encouraging Riley not to let her dad know how unhappy she really is. Sadly, Joy’s intentions don’t go according to plan when Riley is unable to receive the support from her family that she so needs to help her with adjusting to the move. She is too inexperienced and young to have developed the coping skills to manage what she is feeling, and it all becomes too much and overwhelming for her. Riley has a hard time coping with her move, she struggles with her parents demands and expectations, and trying not to disappoint them. She is desperately sad and homesick, being far from old friends, as well as missing her school and her beloved ice hockey. She becomes so miserable she decides to try to run away.

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By not giving herself permission to really experience what she is feeling and pretending that she was ok, Riley ends up being angry and anxious, getting into a fight with her parents and her best friend, before shutting down altogether.

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Our emotions are a vital part of us, and who we are, and when functioning properly they allow us to experience our lives as well adjusted children, teenagers or adults. If we numb our ability to feel sadness, we also numb that ability to feel any real joy. We need to experience all of our emotions, and that includes sadness, as painful as it may be sometimes. Sadness gives us empathy and allows us to connect with others, when we see them feeling sad. To feel any real empathy we need to feel that sadness with the person, which makes us want help them by relieving them of their sadness. Riley’s parents mistakenly tried to relieve her of her sadness by telling her not to feel sad. There is healing in empathy and supporting someone through sadness. That is what we see when Sadness comforts Riley’s imaginary friend, Bing Bong, and also when Riley is able to share her sadness with her parents and express to them how she really feels about the move and how it has affected her.

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The movie ends by reminding us that we can experience multiple emotions at the same time, such as joy and sadness, and that in reality is more true to life than feeling only joy. The movie shows that everyone experiences these emotions, none of us are alone in that, as they are universal to everyone. What this means is we all struggle with the same emotions, insecurities and heartbreaks at some time or another. Knowing this (which is what the movie illustrates so profoundly) validates our internal experiences and offers us comfort in our times of difficulty.

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Inside Out is one of my all time favourite movies. It is a very relatable movie for so many reasons and to all age groups. I highly recommend it, and would love to hear your opinions on it too.




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