Pixar’s Inside Out: This Is How You Talk To Kids About Depression [Review]

inside out

Spoiler alert–Inside Out is a good movie:

inside out rotten tomatoes

It’s more of what the world at large has come to expect from Pixar: Animated movies that are fun, smart, and moving enough to be enjoyed by children and adults (with gorgeous visuals besides). In recent years, other studios–Walt Disney with Wreck-It Ralph, DreamWorks Animation with How to Train Your Dragon, Warner Bros. with The Lego Movie–may have edged in on Pixar’s one-time reputation as the only (non-indie) company delivering animated movies at the highest level of quality, and I say the more the merrier, but damn does this movie illustrate exactly what makes Pixar… well, Pixar.

Spoilers follow…

If you’ve seen the trailers, you know the basic premise: The five main characters are emotions (Joy, Sadness, Anger, Fear, Disgust) that exist in a sort of control center inside the brain of 11-year-old Riley. They control how she feels–Joy (Amy Poehler) gets the controls, Riley feels happy, and so on. There are disputes between the emotions, but on balance, everything works pretty harmoniously. Though Joy, the leader, is the only positive (or positive-seeming… more on that later) emotion in the bunch, she acknowledges the importance of her anthropomorphic comrades. Fear (Bill Hader) keeps you safe. Anger (Lewis Black) comes from a desire for fairness. Disgust (Mindy Kaling) helps you define your personal autonomy. And Sadness…

…Sadness is where this movie got me right in my feelings. Because Joy doesn’t get Sadness (Phyllis Smith). To be frank, Joy’s a little mean to her. Keep your hands off the controls. Go stand in the corner. You’re not wanted here. Her constant dismissal of Sadness–even when Sadness has good ideas!–doesn’t come from a place of malice. The ever-joyous Joy just doesn’t understand why Riley should ever have to be sad.

As someone who’s struggled with depression, that really hit home to me. Because there’s this idea, as completely pervasive in our society as it is completely wrong, that you should be happy more or less all the time. You can’t avoid being sad, but when it happens, boy-oh-boy, you better snap out of it quickly. It’s something to be fought with, never accepted. Because who wouldn’t rather be happy than sad? Sadness is pointless. Or even worse–it’s indicative of a character flaw.

Sadness is weakness.

Needless to say, Inside Out is a happy kid’s movie, so Joy eventually does come around as to the value of her mopey blue friend. Sadness, we learn, is a part of who we are. It’s neither positive nor negative, like any other emotion. It’s like multiple therapists have told me (maybe one day it’ll sink in): The word “should” has absolutely no place when discussing how you feel. It’s not–as Joy initially thinks–that you shouldn’t feel sad, or should feel happy. You can’t force yourself to feel something you don’t. Sadness is as valid an emotion as any other, and nothing to be guilty over.

As for depression–which is a different, more all-consuming beast than your garden variety sadness–I don’t want to spoil the circumstances, but there’s a point where Inside Out uses the framework it’s established (Core memories! Islands!) to more or less explicitly show what depression is like in a way that makes perfect sense. “Wow,” I thought. “There it is. That’s the best way I’ve ever seen it explained, and it happened in a movie with a character who cries candy.”

Inside Out has its flaws. Or maybe “flaws” is too strong a word. It’s not my favorite Pixar movie. That’s Wall-E, because space. Inside Out is an incredibly smart film. The world-building is incredible and allows for the exploration of some pretty complex ideas, like abstract thinking, long-term memory, the subconscious, and mental health issues. That said, the emphasis on the cerebral means there’s very little to Inside Out by way of plot. Characters go to a place. They have to get back from that place. It’s padded and stretched out. There’s not even a bad guy. On one hand, that makes for a refreshing change of pace. On the other, Inside Out is pretty pokey compared to something like The Lego Movie, which has a more even balance of big ideas and fun.

I don’t mean to imply that kid’s movies shouldn’t include complex ideas because their target audience won’t be able to understand them, or some nonsense like that. The criticism comes more from a place of wondering how seven-year-old me would have responded to a movie where so little actually happens. I’ll be curious to see how Inside Out stacks up against previous Pixar efforts like Finding Nemo and Toy Story in terms of prime placement on the DVD shelves of young children.

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