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Inside Out has a small but significant Chicago connection

The ideas behind Disney-Pixar's new film about emotion have local roots.



I had an emotional reaction to advance publicity for the new Disney-Pixar movie Inside Out.

It was Surprise.

I'm capitalizing because once you've seen Inside Out, it's hard not to think of any emotion as a character, with a proper name.

The movie, as you likely know by now (you've seen those garbage-can posters in the Loop, right?), mostly takes place inside the head of an 11-year-old girl, a domain dominated by a team of endearingly anthropomorphic and benign feelings.

There's Fear, a strung-out Seuss-like guy with an elongated purple body and golf-ball eyes (voiced by Bill Hader); Disgust, a trendy, mouthy, green know-it-all (Mindy Kaling); Anger, bright red and built like a cross between Sponge Bob and a volcano (Lewis Black); Sadness, sweetly blue, and too predictably a bespectacled bit of a blimp (Phyllis Smith); and Joy, a golden-skinned sprite reminiscent of Tinkerbell (Amy Poehler).

Surprise didn't make the casting cut, but I can picture him: orange, with finger-in-the-socket hair and perpetually popping eyeballs.

The emotions work at a control tower command station, where Joy is usually in charge. The territory around them consists of vast memory-storage areas (the memories are globes, color coded according to their emotional charge), a memory dump, and a circle of core-memory-powered theme-park islands that include Family, Friendship, Honesty, Imagination, and Goofball. Intellect is represented by a little train of thought, chugging through on rails to its ordained stops. It's not a character, and it's not in charge of anything.

The plot is mainly focused on a few days in which the 11-year-old, Riley, and her parents move from Minnesota to San Francisco, forcing her to deal with a new environment and the loss of her old friends. Those events occur at a normal pace, while a parallel story unfolds among the emotions in Riley's head at a frenetic rate. There's a crisis, of course, and many misadventures, along with a steady, rapid stream of clever dialogue, but it's the resolution, and what I read about the intention of the film, that surprised me. Riley is saved by Sadness. This is a movie that wants you to know that emotion—any emotion—is your friend, not something to be suppressed or ignored.

That was a familiar idea to me, but I didn't expect to be getting it from Disney.

If you see Inside Out, you definitely want to stay for the credits. The film's funniest moments are there, vignettes suggesting that nature's other creatures (think Fido and Fluffy) are driven by their own emotion teams. Also there: a thank-you to University of California psychologists Paul Ekman and Dacher Keltner, who served as consultants to Pete Docter, the film's writer and director.

Ekman, now a professor emeritus and once a student at the University of Chicago, is a prolific, sometimes controversial author. He's published a book with the Dalai Lama, but is best known as the "human lie detector." In 1978 he devised a "Facial Action Coding System," and since the 80s, when he published a book called Telling Lies, he's been consulting with police departments and organizations including the CIA and Homeland Security on how to detect deception in the "micro expressions" of the human face—fleeting glimpses of emotion that last no more than 1/15 of a second. At his Paul Ekman Group website, he sells manuals that teach micro (and even more subtle) expression recognition. His facial detective work inspired a Fox Television drama series, Lie to Me, which featured a fictionalized version of him. The five emotions characterized in Inside Out were plucked from a list that Ekman found to have uniform human facial expression.

Ekman's lie-detection studies were built on the discovery of "micro-momentary facial expressions" by two Chicago psychologists, Ernest H. Haggard and Kenneth S. Isaacs, who published a paper on the subject in 1966. Isaacs is my uncle, a psychoanalytically trained University of Chicago PhD from whom I've heard for as long as I can remember the basic message of Inside Out: all emotions are natural and serve a function related to your survival; properly utilized (instead of avoided), they can enhance the quality of life. According to him, if we clear up the common misconception of emotion that causes us to fear it, and become good observers of ourselves, we'll also eliminate neuroses.

When I called my uncle to ask if he'd seen the movie, he said he hadn't yet. At 95, he's busy, working on getting the latest version of his radically optimistic theory into print.

I'm thinking it can't hurt that a pretty good chunk of it is now Pixar dust.  v

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