Arts & Culture · Film & Television · Technology

All This, and Popcorn Too? How the Film ‘Inside Out’ Justifies Teen Turmoil for a Broad Audience

 “For female audiences especially, the film’s most significant tragedy centers on Riley’s core values crumbling and tumbling irretrievably into an abyss. This particular visual is a painful and graphic reminder of the fragility of a young woman’s sense of self.”

It’s worth remembering this is a Disney/Pixar film, and as heroines go, Riley stands as a complex and evolved character in the pantheon. There is much more at stake than a little mermaid’s enchantment with another world, or a Belle choosing to love a misunderstood Beast. (In all fairness, recent characters—Queen Elsa in Frozen and Princess Merida of Brave show strong feminist qualities.) Heroine Riley is forced to grapple with the loss of her own identity, and her coterie of interior friends, along with an invested audience, want nothing more than to see her pull through unscathed.

For female audiences especially, the film’s most significant tragedy centers on Riley’s core values, imagined here as elaborate castles in the sky. As Riley faces mounting confusion, these islands of “Family” “Goofball” “Honesty” “Sports” and “Friendship” lose all color, crumbling and tumbling irretrievably into an abyss. This particular visual is a painful and graphic reminder of the fragility of a young woman’s sense of self. Could the manuals on raising healthy girls, like the 1990s Reviving Ophelia, been source material here? It seems so, and to the film’s credit, the only resources to save Riley lie within her own psyche.

There are no traditional princes poised for rescue in this tale, but there is Bing Bong. This goofy dolphin/elephant creature in a porkpie hat is Riley’s forgotten, imaginary childhood friend who emerges from her Subconscious to try to lead Joy and Sadness safely back to their place in Headquarters. Much like Shel Silverstein’s “giving tree,” Bing Bong is eternally loyal and self-sacrificing. He is an embodiment of the best that childhood is forced to leave behind. (In the promotion of the film, Docter admits to intentionally omitting Bing Bong so as not to confuse audiences or spoil his effect, but no other character in the film has generated his own cult following. #longliveBingBong)

In yet another dynamic to play out between Joy and Sadness, young and mature viewers will find age-appropriate meaning and satisfaction. While Joy fights to preserve Riley’s core memories, keeping them safe from Sadness’ blue curse, Sadness runs amok, leaving a glowing trail of melancholy in her wake. So what happens when an adolescent’s life experiences are no longer painted with the broad strokes of happiness?

Here lies one of the deepest and most impressive truths of the film: our own habits of behavior are hard to break, especially when others seem to depend upon them.

Throughout the course of the story, Riley’s sunny disposition, once considered unassailable, is completely deconstructed. The emotional turning point in the story is in the moment she reveals to her loving parents “you need me to be happy . . . but it’s not always how I feel.” In this potent child-parent exchange, Riley, like a dancing ballerina on the magnetic mirror, stops her frantic twirl. Childhood innocence is in jeopardy, but instead she might find a handle on her own authenticity. As she questions Joy’s domination, and explores the purpose and hidden value of Sadness, she discovers she can be true to herself, whatever that may look like day-to-day (or in the case of teenagers, hour-to-hour) and still be loved.

Women and young girls alike may recognize Riley’s moment of reckoning between acting happy and being happy.

Pixar may not play entirely fair by veiling the real issues of pre-teen identity in family entertainment, but it’s good someone is doing it, and in such a huge way. Wash down peas with milk, you still get the peas, and everyone knows that makes strong bodies.

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  • Roz Warren July 7, 2015 at 8:51 am

    Thanks for the review. I’m looking forward to seeing this one.

    Reply
  • Cheryl July 7, 2015 at 8:27 am

    Your article comes at a most interesting time. I am spending time with my 12 year old niece who would rather at this point be somewhere else. Along with that- is the “are you kidding”, “lashing out” the list goes on. I remember when I was 12, and I was probably worse. Oh to the loss of innocence as their many created acting out mind emerge… and hopefully grow into the beautiful women most of us turn out to be. Great article. CF

    Reply
  • B. Elliott July 7, 2015 at 7:53 am

    An incredibly incisive and articulate review. I will be sure to see this movie!

    Reply