Inside Out is a great movie for kids and families to see together. It's especially apt for kids whose parents have gone through a divorce. Much like Riley's struggle to adapt to a new city, kids who have experienced divorce will know what it's like to manage big life changes.
Pete Docter, the artistic director, of Inside Out, took on the challenge of personifying emotions and giving them form. Emotions can seem elusive, so presenting an emotion that has a shape and personality helps us identify with it more easily. It also helps us see the link between emotions and how we act.
Joy, always perky, tries to influence Riley by coloring everything positive.
Disgust starts gagging whenever something seems yucky, like pizza with broccoli on top. Anger blows his top exactly as Riley slams her hand on the dining room table. Fear makes Riley scared of her spooky new house, and Sadness makes Riley feel alone and miss her old life in Minnesota.
These are all feelings kids can recognize and identify with. In the movie, Riley's sadness deepens as she tries to adjust to a lot of changes all at once. Not only is she in a new city, but in a new house and a new school as well. Kids who have gone through a divorce will immediately identify with much of this. They'll know exactly what it feels like to have to make transitions like these, especially if they have been sudden or unwelcome.
While grown ups sometimes have to make hard decisions that uproot families, like Riley's dad's decision to move the family because of a new job, or other big changes like divorce, can be hard for kids to manage. Kids will identify with Riley's sense of powerlessness over the things she can't control, and they'll know how it feels to be sensitive and touchy.
Big changes, like the ones Riley's family is dealing with, are preoccupying and take up emotional energy and time. Kids can feel the stress around them and the unavailability of family members. How kids interpret this shift is important. In the movie, Riley is aware that her parent's attention is going to other things. Does Riley think her parents love her less? Is she the only one missing their together time or skating on the pond in Minnesota? When kids see parents preoccupied they need reassurance that they are still loved and important.
Sometimes this reassurance is hard to give because at this time parents may have the least amount of energy or attention to give. So it often helps just to talk about this - to acknowledge that things aren't the same; that everyone is feeling stress and missing what they had before. Talking is a way to share rather than deny what's happening. Often though, we believe that talking about things might make them worse. In the short run, that might happen, as sadness pours out or anger surfaces. Yet, giving voice to feelings helps reduce them and keeps them from getting bigger. It can also solidify family bonds when each person acknowledges what's been especially hard for them. It elicits shared sympathy and support when it's most needed.
In the movie, Riley's parents try to cheer her up and remind her that she's their "happy girl." Their need to see her as their "happy girl" actually keeps Riley from being able to talk about her real disappointments and how much she's missing her old life in Minnesota. Not feeling she is heard by her parents, she determines that the only way back to being happy is to return to Minnesota. Riley runs away, but with Sadness' help she returns home and tells her parents how really miserable she's been. With their comfort and reassurance, Riley becomes more hopeful and ready to try out her new life.
Go see the movie and check out my book, "Yell and Shout, Cry and Pout: A Kid's Guide to Feelings," so you can sit down with your children and help them identify all their emotions. When Peter Docter, was trying to choose which emotions to feature he consulted with the same researchers I used. So the emotions in my book will coordinate with the ones in the movie. My book can help you teach your children the purpose of each emotion and how they keep us healthy and safe.
For a longer discussion of the role of Sadness and Joy in Inside Out take a look at my blog: How Sadness Saves the Day in Pixar's Inside Out.