Joy and Sadness and Fear and Hope and Disappointment and Envy and Shame

I’ve spent my life trying to represent the emotions inside children’s heads. The only thing I wanted from Inside Out was more of them.

Disgust, Joy, Fear, Sadness, Anger from the movie Inside Out.
Anger, Sadness, Fear, Joy, and Disgust in Inside Out.

Still courtesy of Disney/Pixar.

The fidgety, too-young-for-this-film child sitting in front of me turned to his father about three-quarters of the way through Inside Out and whined, “When is it gonna be over?” Dad replied, “Shhh. Look. They’re about to take off in a rocket.”

I began a silent incantation. Please please do not take off in a rocket. Please please do not take off in a rocket. But of course: BAM. WHOOSH. Two characters—Joy (Amy Poehler) and jilted imaginary friend Bing Bong (Richard Kind)—went careening through the air in a wagon propelled by rocket blasts. This is an animated film, after all, so there have to be Boinks and Whooshes and Pows.

Earlier, the same dad’s other, slightly older child had said loudly, “Why does she keep saying ‘Deja voo, deja voo?’ ” Dad’s reply: “Shhh. I’ll explain when we get home.” I am not privy, of course, to his explanation. But mine would have been: “They have to throw in jokes that only grown-ups understand because grown-ups pay for the tickets and the popcorn.”

Inside Out, I think, is going to sell a lot of those, and rightly so. It undertakes something remarkable and darn near impossible: It tries to explore—and portray—the complicated, frequently warring emotions inside the head of a pre-adolescent girl, and especially during a time of tough transition. It does it well, with wit, charm, and insight, and with a near-perfect cast of voices.

But one of the pitfalls of Pixar, if a necessary one, is a certain kind of oversimplification. Like protagonist Riley, I too, at 11, underwent a dislocating move; mine was from Pennsylvania to Tokyo. I too had to stand in front of a class of strangers and introduce myself. The five characters of the film—joy, anger, sadness, fear, and disgust—were all there, jockeying for position. But oh my, I remember also the hulking deep pink of Humiliation, and the wide amber eyes of Curiosity—and so many others raising their hands to be noticed. I’m sorry they had to be set aside.

It might well be because of just that—the fact that I remember so clearly, 67 years after the fact, how it felt to be the new kid in the classroom, the one with the bad haircut and unbecoming dress—that as a writer I have made that kid and her cohort my audience. People often ask me if I plan to write, eventually, for adults—as if that would be the natural progression. But my answer is no. I do like adults. And I am one. But my fascination lies in the inside-out world of childhood and the kaleidoscopic whirl of its emotions, the same world depicted, albeit a little simplistically, by Pixar.

I have entered that world again and again. I do it by remembering, by re-feeling, those childhood occasions: not the birthday parties and merry-go-rounds, but the quotidian moments when the multicolored quintet of Inside Out sat at the control panel. Here is a moment when I was 12, in 1949. There was a mother-and-daughter event at school, and my mother came out of her bedroom (I remember she was screwing on an earring; we were in a hurry) wearing a floral print dress. I remember looking at her and saying, “You’re not going to wear that, are you?” And at this moment, in 2015, recalling that moment, a new character has appeared in my own brain. He is deep purple and has an unattractive face. He’s a more self-loathing, menacing brother of Disgust, and his name is Shame. I felt him again when I re-created the scene in a book called Anastasia, Ask Your Analyst (now reissued under the title Anastasia Off Her Rocker), when 12-year-old Anastasia Krupnik tries to explain to her painter mother why she doesn’t want to be seen with her in public, telling her: “You always wear jeans. I don’t even like to walk beside you on the street because you don’t look like a regular mother.”

So it was fascinating to see the way Inside Out incarnated many of the emotions I’ve spent my life trying to conjure, too. But it also left me wishing for more. I realize that a film actually uses a fairly short script, compared to the manuscript of a book. In my novels, I get to explore much more than animators can. Perhaps that is why I felt frustrated now and then, during this film; I wanted to roam around, visiting with those emotions, and others, playing with the way they compete and battle and even become treacherous shape-shifters. In a book, as in real life, emotions are clearly not the immutable, charming caricatures that they are in this movie.

One thing I do love (and envy) about animated films is the putty-like array of facial expressions. My favorite in Inside Out is Sadness, with her pudgy blue cheeks and chipmunky mouth. Even though the relentlessly perky Joy is the dominatrix of this narrative, still it is Sadness who forces the integration of Riley’s emotions (cue the Group Hug) and indeed that is the point, the goal, the climactic moment.

I suspect that few movies aimed at a young audience acknowledge as well as this one does the role of sadness in the lives of kids. Yes, of course there are the countless dog-dies-in-the-end tales and there is, and thank god always will be, Charlotte’s Web. But nothing, until Inside Out, presents the truth that says it is part of us; it will always be there. Hello, sadness, my old friend …   And we, like Riley and her parents, all learn to grapple with it.

Of course the dad who sat in front of me couldn’t answer his wiggly, yawning kid with, “Shhh. They’re about to integrate the emotions.” Hence the rocket blaster. Hence the pow, boink, swoosh overkill. And the teetering tower of cloned boyfriends—a funny device that seemed to mean little to the actual plot. And the endless broccoli jokes. Those things keep the kid upright and awake, with his hand in the popcorn, so that we who are older—though probably not wiser—can concentrate on the poignancy, the power, and the pastel wonder of this film. And all of that is truly great.

But I do find myself wondering: What if Pixar, with its dazzling rainbow technology, let this quiet story unfold with slightly less noise? What if it focused more squarely on the relationship between the emotions, rather than the chaos of the chase and the blast-offs? It would still be beautiful. It would still be complex. It would still be dramatic. And with its portrayal of core emotions, and the storage unit of memories, and the vast islands of safety that loom large in Riley’s psyche, it might feel somehow more human, more real—even for the 11-year-olds in the audience grappling with their own choruses of Disgust and Joy and Fear. But of course, it makes sense that the filmmakers have to fear the large pale taupe blob with heavy-lidded eyes: Boredom. He always needs a rocket launch.