By Neha Margosa
Is sadness important to our understanding of who we are?
Dacher Keltner, professor of psychology at the University of California, certainly thinks so. He was one of the scientists consulted by the makers of Inside Out, the new animated Disney-Pixar film that peeks into a young girl’s mind. “There is a literature on how sadness makes us see things wisely,” he told npr, and he believes that Inside Out’s depiction of sadness is one of the film’s highlights.
I couldn’t agree more: Inside Out wins because it can be read as a rejoinder to all that #bepositive stuff we’re often told. It’s a particularly sympathetic portrayal of a young girl, Riley: it puts her at the centre of its story, and tells her story with warmth and empathy. And – best of all – nowhere does it even hint that having FEEEEEEEEELINGS is necessarily a girl thing.
That said, it’s refreshing that Riley is exactly that: a girl, not a princess (the most common job held by a Disney leading lady, according to this count). She is a girl who is, at last, allowed to have interests, and to be angry, sad, bored, lonely – in other words, to be human.
Riley is an eleven-year-old hockey addict and goofball. When her family moves to San Francisco from snowy Minnesota, her life is thrown into disarray. She’s at a new school; she misses home and her friends; the pizza has broccoli.
For much of Inside Out, though, it’s not Riley we see: it’s the people inside Riley’s head while they tussle for control and try to keep her safe and happy. These are, of course, the emotions Joy (Amy Poehler), Sadness (Phyllis Smith), Fear (Bill Hader), Disgust (Mindy Kaling), and Anger (Lewis Black).
“She’s good! We’re good! It’s all great!”
Joy, played to Poehler perfection, is often the captain of the ship, the head of the controls at Riley’s emotion-board, besides being the liveliest character on screen. She dances and giggles. She plays the accordion with dizzy excitement as Riley tucks into cereal on the first day of school. She’s upbeat, resolute, and never needs downtime: even when the rest of the emotions sleep, she’s on “Dream Duty.”
And yet, Inside Out is awesome precisely because it makes us see the shortcomings of seemingly-perfect Joy. We love her for wanting to keep Riley happy, but Joy also makes Riley choke down her discomfort in the interest of being “strong” for her parents. Soon, all this repression explodes disastrously when Riley decides to run away from home.
The film has all the adventure and warmth that we’ve come to expect from the Pixar stable – my favourite character was Bing Bong, Riley’s imaginary friend who cries tears of candy – and it passes the Bechdel test with ease, but the most interesting moments come when the anthropomorphized emotions themselves must grow and make complex choices. Like when Joy realises that sometimes it’s not always “all great!”, that sometimes sad people need empathetic company and not cheering up. This means that Joy has to learn to let Sadness run the board for a bit – so that Riley can be honest about what’s going on.
Joy and Sadness, cast as women and voiced memorably by Poehler and Smith, are each pivotal to the plot. The choice to make Sadness a short, fat, thick-glasses-wearing woman isn’t one I loved, but apparently the intention was to make her teardrop-shaped. Their conversations span everything from brain manuals to their favourite films and rainy-day activities (“Jumping in puddles!” “Standing in the rain until your boots get soggy…”). It’s the tension between Joy and Sadness, after all, that defines much of Inside Out.
Neha Margosa is a writer who lives in Bangalore. Follow her on twitter @nehamargosa.