The twist in the way this movie works, of course, is that this girl's inner life - the emotions that literally run her control panel - are personified. The girl's basic emotions: Joy, Fear, Anger, Sadness, and Disgust, are portrayed as anthropomorphized characters - and they are the inside that we see on the outside of this movie. Most of the time it is Riley's inner life that is portrayed. Occasionally we see into other's control rooms - or headquarters - and see that they have the same basic emotions and thus the characters in their control rooms have the same colors (Joy is yellow, fear is purple, anger is red, sadness is blue and disgust is green). Though the characters are dressed differently and each set of characters has its own unique set of interrelationships which are integral to the outer person's character, we can see that each person has the same basic make up, just a different configuration of the "personalities" of the emotions, which, in turn, are the primary drivers of the lives of each person.
Riley begins the movie with Joy (voiced by Amy Pohler, the insufferably positive actress of Parks and Recreation and 30 Rock fame) firmly in charge. This feels, frankly, a bit annoying. It is like having a soccer mom, one who used to be a cheerleader, run the show. Everything is just a little too perky, a little too perfect, and Joy, while clearly the real star, is a complicated character to like because her saccharine sweetness is two dimensional and cloying. She also seems strangely middle aged. Her primary role - besides generally being at the controls and consulting with most of the other feelings, is to keep sadness isolated from the rest of Riley's functioning.
The daily tasks of the emotional group involve helping determine what kinds of routines Riley will use to react to situations, and then, at the end of the day, to work on consolidating memories. Some of these memories, about five of them, are considered core memories, and each of these is directly tied (across an abyss that, at its bottom, contains discarded memories) to complex entities that represent the personality structures - they are called islands - that are the basis, the cornerstones, of Riley's character. Riley's core personality structures include Goofball Island, Family Island, Honesty Island, Friendship Island and Hockey Island. Each memory, represented as a small ball, is colored by the dominant emotion associated with it, and each of her core memories are yellow. The other memories, the ones that aren't core memories, are sorted at the end of the day and sent off to long term memory, a huge maze of connected shelves that are maintained by a crew that picks out memories to be discarded (It is pretty funny to see them vacuuming up all of the presidents except for Washington, Lincoln and the fat one). The discarded memories are sucked into the abyss where, over time, they decay and disappear into smoke.
In addition to the Islands and long term memory, there is a train of thought that wanders from station to station, with stops in imagination land and preschool land. At one point, Joy takes a shortcut through abstract thought - I question its fully developed presence in a twelve year old - but it is pretty funny to see the characters become deconstructed, reassembled as cubist elements, become two dimensional, and use their two dimensionality to escape from being abstractions. Whether developmentally accurate or not, it is truly delightful to watch this kaleidoscopic transformation - I am impressed here, as I am always impressed when watching high quality cartoons - by just how much of the humor is directed at the educated adults in the audience. This really ain't kid stuff.
And the plot rains on this little girl with the too good history by plopping her into a dank and unfurnished row house in San Francisco where the moving van is late, her parents' relationship is fraying, and she goes to school as the new kid. When she tries out for hockey, the internal chaos that the other events have unleashed interferes with her performance and we observe an inner meltdown that eventuates in threats to the core memories, and the loss of Joy and Sadness from the control room - they get relegated to the outer reaches of her mind. The plot revolves around Joy's quest to return to the control room; a quest that is, like any other quest, filled with all kinds of perilous impediments.
There are some psychoanalytically interesting elements in this mind (for a review of an article on a contemporary psychoanalytic model of the mind use the link here). The subconscious, roughly equivalent, I suppose, to Freud's repressed unconscious, is filled with scary stuff that has been banished but is very much alive. Like Freud's earliest model of the mind, these contents are guarded, though these guards are hilariously and usefully inept, much more focused on their own lives than on their jobs. Dreams involve memories from the day, what Freud would call the day residue, together with the ability to tap into longer term memories. There is a filter in the dream studio that changes the actors, who are essentially blobs, into the characters that are remembered, but the wonderful ability to integrate recent and remote memories that occurs in our actual dreams is not portrayed. What is portrayed is that no amount of joy will wake Riley from her slumber, and Sadness begins to show her use by convincing Joy that to wake Riley they really should use fear, a much more effective means of invoking sleeplessness (though guilt, not included as a basic emotion, might have worked even better...).
What seems most real about this movie, however, is the way in which Joy is tempered by Sadness. Sadness, initially seen as just being a drag, becomes essential to the quest, to the resurrection of Riley, and ultimately to Joy becoming a three dimensional character, one who is able to effectively function as the executive, calling in the auxiliary emotions not just when she is flummoxed but as a means to more effectively and competently guide Riley's experience. While we might argue over the root emotions and which should be included, and we might quibble with the more fanciful aspects of the geography of Riley's mind, the net internal result of this girl's coming of age rings true. This movie presents a model of recovery that works well for someone with a solid psychological base - one that falters in the face of trauma. If the trauma has been earlier and more severe, the recovery -building the islands of character from scratch - is more complicated than the rebuilding described here. But one more true to life component is that sadness reveals that these memories, including the core memories, are more complex than Joy initially led us to believe; they include traumatic elements - and the new structures that are built are built on core memories that are golden, but with a distinct bluish tinge, one that will help Riley, should she choose to become a therapist - or a wife - or a mother - or a good friend - or a good daughter, become more empathically connected, because they aren't artificially yellow. Rain, it turns out, falls into even a Disneyfied life (see a posting about Disney and Mary Poppins).
In case you were wondering, I went to see this film with the same reluctant stepdaughter with whom I recently went to see Hozier (the link is to that posting). It is nice that she is interested both in moving forward in her musical taste, but is also willing to visit the Island of Childish Pleasures (including Pixar films) with me. This film could, I think, be used as a therapeutic vehicle. It could, in a relationship between two people who were trying to understand the workings of one of their minds, help the pair reflect on that mind and think about what aspects of the film were consistent with the models of the mind that the therapist and patient are using and what might be useful additions. But I don't think that this movie, like a good fairy tale, necessarily has to be thought about abstractly, to be deconstructed, to be of use to someone who is in the midst of having a core meltdown, or who is trying to understand what happened when they had a core meltdown (though I think it important that, if someone has a core meltdown, it makes sense to acknowledge that the external stressors that lead to the core meltdown here are really pretty nominal and their experience is likely both more complex and more objectively distressing). For the two of us, who are not in a therapeutic relationship, it led to a conversation about whether we have core memories and into talking about some of our early memories. This was a fun and pleasant conversation. The ways in which the movie touched us more deeply were largely left unexplored other than to note that, predictably, I cried in all the moving places.
Post script: For an essay by a philosopher on the ways in which the film represents the self as a semi-permanent result of shifting underlying forces and processes, go here.There have been a few essays about how the Pixar folks chose these five emotions. The one in wikipedia I found particularly interesting,
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