Surprised by Disney

Moviegoers know the excitement of a film that’s included something special just for you to notice – a meta-reference to another film, a particular literary allusion from a book you love, or simply your favourite actor or writer included as a cameo in the background of a scene. In the past, Pixar productions seemed to have a lock on this cultish feeling, with coded messages hidden in the animations, or sightings of A113 mysteriously appearing in a dozen movies. Go ahead and Google those little Easter eggs if you wish. In 2006, however, Disney bought Pixar and for nearly 10 years seemed more interested in money-making sequels than something new. Toy Story 3, Cars 2, Monsters University; entertaining yes, but not original. Pixar’s latest, Inside Out, is a thoroughly unique and creative story told with surprising depth of insight. Detailing the life of a young girl named Riley, the story depicts her idyllic childhood in small-town Minnesota being torn away as her family moves to the strange and modern San Francisco, where she struggles to process and express her feelings during this difficult upheaval.

Behind the scenes, so to speak, are the characters within Riley’s mind who represent her emotions and oversee the development of her personality: Fear, Joy, Sadness, Disgust and Anger. With the family’s move to California, the emotions, kept under control by Joy up to now, find that there is very little about which Riley can smile and Sadness is gaining influence to everyone’s dismay. When Joy and Sadness end up being lost in the far reaches of Riley’s mind, the other emotions must take over and try to keep their girl happy – a feat that proves impossible as Riley misses her home, friends and her beloved hockey. Most of all, the move and her parents’ subsequent distractions with cleaning, locating the moving van and navigating dad’s business, puts a strain on Riley’s most important character traits of “Family” and “Honesty.”

Inside Out is surprising in many ways. First, the film is ludicrously entertaining. The comic dialogue and visual effects offer plenty for parents wondering if they should watch this movie with their kids. Second, the storytelling and handling of Riley’s emotional distress within a funny movie is delicate and very powerful both for parents and children alike. As a parent of two young children, I found myself imagining how my children process all our activities and emotional encounters, realizing that juggling all our impulses and feelings is straight up hard work and that I, as the parent, need to consciously coach my little ones in this skill. For children, the story will affirm that their emotions are valuable and normal; Riley’s memories and hardships are shared by all children to varying degree. As the movie reminds audiences, when Sadness reaches out, it is important to feel it and allow its expression in order to bring needed comfort from those who love you.

You may be a C.S. Lewis devotee like myself and, if so, noticed this entire article started with a bit of an in-joke. In his curated autobiography detailing how his inner-life of thought and faith developed, Surprised by Joy, C.S. Lewis uses the idea of Joy as a stand-in term for the other-worldly, all-encompassing contentment that incorporates and transmutes all transient experiences into a life of, for the same lack of a better word that Lewis encountered, joy. The film Inside Out is surprising, as well, because it seems to understand this reality, our reality; life is not lived one emotion at a time, but in the flux and mingling of our experiences we grow in maturity and character. Lewis, though beginning his hunt for joy as an atheist, discovered the ultimate source of joy in Christ. While the animated film doesn’t go in this direction, Christians will see in this mingling a truth about our fallen world. God has created and loves us, but we must live out our faith, seeking his blessing, in the midst of sin and temporal sadness. When we place our trust in God’s grace, then, like the child Riley, we can feel comfort and even joy in the midst of our sadness.

Given the pleasant surprising nature of this film, its focus on children’s mental health, and the flat-out enjoyment I felt when watching this movie, I highly recommend giving Inside Out a watch. If you have children of any age, or simply wish to feed your own inner-child, see this film and you’ll be pleasantly surprised by how meaningful a cartoon can be.

  • Tom Smith is a teacher living in Barrie, Ont. with his wife Sarah and son Jakeb.

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