Film Review: Inside Out

This year’s summer release by Pixar Animation Studios, Inside Out, follows the inner workings of the mind of Riley, an 11-year-old girl from Minnesota, as her life is suddenly turned upside down when her family moves to San Francisco. This film has already received great acclaim at Cannes Film Festival 2015 for its heartfelt relatable story, imaginative storytelling, beautiful animation and a delightful musical score. However the film’s complex subtexts are really what makes it remarkable, as they are richly informed by a wealth of psychological theories. 

The imaginary world inside Riley’s head is based on interpretations of scientific models of the mind and of human behaviour. The story is also a subtle account about coping with depression, as she eventually learns to develop therapeutic relationships with her family and friends by talking openly about her feelings. These subtexts open up the possibility for range of psychiatric and psychoanalytic readings of the film, making it particularly interesting from a medical humanities perspective.

In an article for the New Yok Times, Brookes Barnes gives an elaborate sketch of the long, complicated process of the film’s development. Barnes traces the origin of the idea to Docter’s childhood experience of moving to Denmark, an experience which left him with deep insecurities. Inside Out is an attempt to explore the complexities of five emotions, Joy, Sadness, Disgust, Anger and Fear, inside the mind of an eleven-year-old child, Riley. After the massive upheaval in Riley’s life, sadness begins to contaminate her memories. After a traumatic first day at her new school, an accident results in a situation where Joy and Sadness get marooned in the vast expanse of her long-term memory. Because of this, Riley goes into a depressive state, while Joy and Sadness travel on a quest to headquarters to set things right.

Ekman and Keltner (psychologists specialising in the study of emotions) helped shape the film’s representation of emotions. The inside of Riley’s mind is depicted as an elaborate computer system controlling her thoughts and actions. The centre or ‘headquarters’ of her consciousness is run by the five core emotions. This imaginative portrayal echoes Ekman’s 1993 study where he states that the expression of these emotions (as well as a sixth) is universal across cultures. Each of these emotions is represented as a pilot inside Riley’s head responsible for directing her day-to-day functioning.
In addition to serving as the cockpit for Riley’s actions, “headquarters” is also responsible for recording her sensory experiences and storing them as memories. It is also connected to various ‘islands of personality’, which drive various aspects of Riley’s character, like her goofiness, her honesty, her relationships and her talent in hockey. These islands are powered by the core memories in an elaborate bank (consisting of an endless network of shelves shaped to resemble the human brain gyri and sulci). Underneath all this is Riley’s subconscious, a dungeon in which all of her darkest fears and most painful memories are repressed. Littered across this colourful landscape are other cognitive faculties like imagination (represented here like a theme park) or Dream Productions (a Hollywood-like film studio), all of which are connected by the ‘train of thought’ in a railway network.

This architecture takes several artistic licences; the idea of an ‘island of personality’ is perhaps the biggest stretch as it implies that the vague aspects of Riley’s character can be compartmentalised into discrete spatial regions. It is also unclear whether these islands are supposed to correspond to neurological structures of the brain. Nevertheless, the narrative commits to this logic wholeheartedly and delivers a coherent and compelling story of how the emotional upset Riley suffers disrupts the various aspects of her personality. However it is worth mentioning that some elements of this world are quite accurate in representing the mind and warrant psychological and psychoanalytic readings, such as the network of memory traces that recall certain thoughts seemingly at random or the way in which dreams – as per Freudian and Jungian models – become an expression of repressed thoughts or emotions within the subconscious. Similarly, the idea that the personality is shaped by core childhood experiences clearly owes a debt to Freudian and post-Freudian psychoanalysis (although it avoids Freud’s libidinal interpretations of the ego).

The representation of Riley’s depression is particularly compelling; at times of emotional distress her islands of personality start breaking down, representing the damaging effect on her personality as she loses her skills in playing hockey and becomes alienated from her friends and family. As Barnes notes, Docter was initially considering sending Riley into deep depression, but later presents a toned down version of depression. A number of animated films have dealt with depression and social isolation before. Docter himself did so through the elderly, childless widower Carl in Up. Similarly, Disney’s recent Big Hero 6 is about a young boy struggling with grief after losing his brother. But what is particularly novel about Inside Out is the way it foregrounds the psychological experience of depression quite literally from the inside, depicting how Riley’s depressive state can disrupt her daily life. The film also emphasises the need for therapeutic dialogue to cope with depression. In the film, Sadness is sent to be responsible for the formation of therapeutic relationships with other people, and its expression, rather than its repression, is what enables Riley to be happy in the end.
Besides Keltner and Ekman’s theories, the film also presents a myriad of other possibilities for psychoanalytical readings; one such reading is Eric Berne’s Transactional Analysis model where Joy represents loosely the Child stage of the ego, Fear the Parent stage and Sadness, Anger and Disgust the Adult stage. Similarly, it is implied that, as Riley grows up, her mind becomes more sophisticated in the way it deals with her emotions. This development of her emotional intelligence to handle complex emotions and the expansion of her islands of personality lends itself to analysis using Jean Piaget’s model of cognitive development. Each of these readings is equally fascinating in their own right, although they pose their respective conceptual and interpretative challenges.

Inside Out is a thought provoking film, not just because of the emotional depth of its story and its artful storytelling, but because of its compelling psychological subtext and its original message about the role sadness plays within society. The film is empathetic in its treatment of depression as it emphasises the need for therapeutic relationships and empathy rather than the forced repression of sadness for the sake of maintaining a happy façade. It demonstrates tremendous stylistic innovation in the way it constructs a fantasy world using this elaborate logic, and in doing so it tells a moving story with a broad scope for analysis and interpretation.

Barnes, Brookes. ‘“Inside Out,” Pixar’s New Movie from Pete Docter, Goes Inside the Mind’. New York Times 20 May 2015. Retreived 22 May 2015 from Retrieved 22 May 2015.
Ekman, Paul. ‘Facial Expression and Emotion’. American Psychologist 48.4 (Apr. 1993): 376-9.
Stewary, Ian and Vann Joines. TA Today: a New Introduction to Transactional Analysis. Nottingham: Lifespace, 1987.
Huitt, William and John Hummel. ‘Piaget’s Theory of Cognitive Development’. Educational Psychology Interactive. Retrieved 22 May 2015 from


Inside Out. Directed by Pete Docter

Star rating: Five Stars.
In general release in the UK on 24th July 2015
Editor: Dr Khalid Ali, Email for correspondence
Reviewed by Vivek Santayana, postgraduate student at the English Literature Department at the University of Edinburgh
Email for correspondence:

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