Empathy: The real star of Pixar’s ‘Inside Out’

Meet the “little voices inside your head’’... and then some.

Meet Sadness and Joy.

The much-anticipated, much-hyped, much-talked-about Pixar film Inside Out hits theaters Friday, and the reviews are in: It’s an “an absolute delight’’ and “new pop-culture touchstone,’’“evoking a largeness of spirit whose ability to be moving sneaks up and takes us by surprise.’’ It is stellar. And I, too, can attest to this.

Inside Out is centered within the mind of an 11-year-old girl named Riley, who moves from her beloved childhood home in Minnesota to a rowhouse in San Francisco, where they put broccoli on pizza. (Ew. Can you even?) The change causes turmoil in Riley’s life, and the jumble of emotions she feels are being controlled by an ensemble of “little voices’’ inside her head.

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Of course, you know, it’s not as sinister as it sounds. Because you can’t miss the catchphrase tied to the movie: “Meet the little voices inside your head.’’ It’s everywhere. For Riley, those voices are: Anger (Lewis Black), Disgust (Mindy Kailing), Fear (Bill Hader), Sadness (Phyllis Smith), and Joy (Amy Poehler). Pixar’s filmmakers consulted with psychologists who say up to 27 emotions can dictate our every move and thought — though as we learn through Riley, some are developed and utilized with age. Riley’s five primary tropes, that embody their names to a T, oversee a control board in her mind in a command center cheekily deemed Headquarters.

The plot picks up when Joy and Sadness are accidentally ejected from Headquarters into the netherregions of Riley’s mind and attempt to find their way back. With them are Riley’s core memories encapsuled in glowing orbs, which, to Joy’s horror, mysteriously change from golden buttery yellow to icy blue when they end up in Sadness’s hands, each revealing a gloomier perspective of the happy memory they contain.

Behind the control panel: Sadness, Fear, Anger, Disgust, Joy. —Disney/Pixar

Joy and Sadness struggle to find commonground in their pursuit home. Joy, optimistic, assertive, effervescent, is continuously frustrated by slow, non-committal, persistently bummed Sadness, on more than one occasion resolving to leave her behind for the sake of returning to Riley’s aid.

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While Joy might be sweet and spunky, she’s also sort of a control freak who lacks faith in her peers. Poehler actually asked Pixar to tone down Joy’s emphatic behavior toward cohort, reasoning, “[There’s] no way you’re gonna follow Joy if she’s being a real bitch to Sadness.’’ But it’s the scenes when Joy easily snubs and condescends Sadness, at one point drawing a chalk circle to corral her in, that are some of the film’s most gutwrenching. How could Joy be so cruel?

It may seem unusual, but this is where the high-concept brilliance of the film lies. Joy, the film’s protagonist and the leader of the emotions, is set up to be easily likable, from her Tinkerbelle-esque sprightliness to her big watchful blue eyes, but given the extent of psychological grounding for the film, her behavior is not surprising. Studies have shown that happy individuals tend to be the worst at displaying empathy. And in a twist, those same happy individuals, like Joy, believe they’re very good at expressing it.

But it’s developing empathy and compassion—specifically the kind found through experience, even the sad kind—that provides Joy the direction they need to find their way back to Headquarters. As she passes off those glowing gold orbs to Sadness, they reveal the disappointment and hurt and subsequent sadness that preempted each joyful moment. The resilience and appreciation for what turns dark to light define the core memories that create the pillars that define Riley’s personality and Joy’s journey home.

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Pixar writer/director Pete Docter, who’s behind greats like Up, Monsters, Inc., Toy Story, and WALL-E , is at the helm of Inside Out, so it should come as no surprise that tissues are recommend by critics — who, might I add, are largely adults. As Joy learns to appreciate Sadness, the message of Inside Out is thrillingly revealed. While “the little voices inside your head’’ may then cue your tearducts, it’s the lessons we’ve learned on outside that allow us to still enjoy the ride, because even through sadness, we can find joy.

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