A pediatrician reviews Inside Out

The Pediatric Insider

© 2015 Roy Benaroch, MD

inside out

As a pediatrician and a father, I wonder: what’s going on inside of kids’ heads? Pixar’s new movie takes us inside the mind of Riley, an 11-year-old girl whose life is turned inside out by her family’s sudden move to San Francisco. Or “San FranStinktown,” as Anger calls it.

Inside Riley’s brain are five emotional beings. When she was born, there was only Joy. Glowing yellow Joy controlled her life with one single button to push—parents smile, Joy pushes button, and baby Riley smiles. But within seconds, a contrasting emotion shows up. Sadness, in blue, stands alongside Joy. And Baby Riley cries. Over the next ten years they’re joined by Disgust, Anger, and Fear, and the control panel morphs from a single button into a complicated array of dials and levels, with the five emotions at times pushing each other aside to control how Riley interacts with the world. Hockey and acting silly brings Joy to the front. Broccoli—which is green and not shaped like a dinosaur—calls Disgust into action, so young Riley can push it away. Which, Disgust thinks, has saved her life.

Pixar’s film did many things very well. As Riley matures and faces new challenges, it becomes more and more clear that emotions are complicated. The idea that one emotion is in charge works for a toddler, but not for a pre-teen—and, in fact, by the end of the movie the control panel has morphed again, allowing multiple emotions to simultaneously control the action, rather than fighting over who’s in charge. (Also, Anger gets a new slew of curse words. Pixar nailed that one.)

The film also illustrates that memories aren’t just videotapes or computer-like recordings of reality. Our memories change to match our emotions; something once remembered as happy can become fearful. The way we feel about the past is accurate in an emotional sense, even when it’s not accurate literally—and that’s a hard concept for kids and adults to understand.

Another good point: these emotional struggles don’t end with childhood. Some of the funniest moments of the film showed the internal workings of adults, too—Mom and Dad and Riley’s teacher. Their mature emotions talked more, and seemed to decide things as a committee. But they still overreacted and sometimes did unwise things.

Still, Inside Out did miss some important things about the mental life of children. Riley’s personality was entirely created by her emotions and her life experiences—there wasn’t really a nod to genetics, or one’s makeup or resilience or other things that children are born with. More importantly, the film just teased with the idea of mental illness, and may have done a disservice to struggling families.

SPOILER ALERT: when Riley had given up hope and ran away, on the bus she was said to have no feelings at all. No Joy, no Sadness, no nothing. That’s an accurate description of how many people with Major Depression feel. But moments later Riley realized that she had made a mistake, and leapt off the bus—and after a good hard cry with Mom and Dad, she turned her life around. Real mental illness isn’t like that. It’s not a few minutes of hopelessness, and it isn’t fixed when you decide yourself to fix it, and it isn’t fixed because you break down and cry for a few minutes. Riley’s story was an accurate depiction of feeling sad and confused and angry, the way we all feel at times. It was not an accurate depiction of mental illness.

Still—I really liked the film, and I think it can be a great conversation starter about emotions and the way they affect kids and adults. Riley herself, and her emotions, were just adorable, even Anger. And the film made a great point about how emotions enrich our lives, even when they’re uncomfortable and complicated. Go see it, with your kids. It will probably make you cry. And that’s good.

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