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Emotions Are Turned Inside Out in Pixar’s Latest Movie

Pixar’s Inside Out is a movie about being a child and all the emotions that accompany this tumultuous time. Director Pete Doctor and producer Jonas Rivera chose the movie’s core emotions based on research from Dr. Paul Ekman. Dr. Ekman identifies six primary emotions that are universal throughout various cultures—happiness, sadness, anger, surprise, disgust, and fear—and all but one of these appear in the film.

Eleven-year-old Riley’s parents have just moved from Minnesota to San Francisco, and she must come to terms with leaving her old school, best friend, and extracurricular activities. Although Riley is the story’s protagonist, the real characters are her emotions: Joy, Sadness, Anger, Disgust, and Fear, which are personified inside her brain.

The film teaches that emotions play a significant role in the development of Riley’s personality. Joy is the leader—Riley’s predominant emotion—and she strives to protect Riley from Sadness. Later, Joy tries to banish one of Riley’s negative memories, and, as a result, she and Sadness get thrown out of Headquarters, the emotional control center. Only Fear, Anger, and Disgust remain, leaving Riley moody and irritable. Conflict ensues as each emotion grapples for control.

During the challenges of trying to return to Headquarters, Joy and Sadness learn important lessons as each begins to empathize with the emotion of the other. By the movie’s conclusion, Joy understands that she and Sadness must learn to coexist. In a Newsweek article, child psychologist Dr. Fadi Haddad comments, “I thought that was a brilliant ending in the movie, to see the importance of having a feeling like Sadness. That’s what connects us many times to families, to sad events, to friends, to understanding the meaning of empathy.”

The acceptance of Sadness leads to a breakthrough for Riley, who then shares with her parents her pain about leaving Minnesota, which in the movie is also a symbol for leaving behind her childhood. Riley’s emotions are reunited, and they begin working together, leading to Riley’s emotional healing.

For a children’s movie, Inside Out is surprisingly mature, accurately depicting how emotions interact, how they change during adolescence, and how they affect memory. It is a scientific yet kid-friendly portrayal of how the brain works, emphasizing the importance of all emotions—both the good and the bad. Emotions can be very complex for adults, and even more so for children. However, Inside Out has made them more accessible.

Do you think Inside Out accurately depicted the psychology of emotions? PAR wants to hear from you, so leave a comment and join the conversation!

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