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Sadness saves the day

Over the weekend, the hubby and I caught a movie that brought us both enjoyment and enlightenment.

I resolved to see the movie “Inside Out” not just because it’s the latest from Disney-Pixar, but more so because so many people, including a respected psychiatrist friend, recommended it and were profuse in their praise.

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Telling the story of Riley Andersen, who is 11, and the emotional tumult she undergoes as her family transfers from the Midwestern home she’s known all her life to a strange city (San Francisco), “Inside Out” explores the workings of the pre-teen mind in the form of animated avatars representing joy, sadness, disgust, anger and fear.

Joy (voiced by Amy Poehler) is the dominant emotion in the “control room” of Riley’s mind, and she does her darndest to keep sadness at bay. But Sadness (Phyllis Smith), who in contrast to sunny Joy is depicted as small, dumpy and appropriately blue, lurks around the control panel, touching long-term memories and persisting in “coloring” the otherwise bright balls with tinges of blue.

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The audience is treated to a prologue that explains the “architecture” of the human brain, the exposition highlighted by episodes of Riley’s life when she gives vent to her feelings. Overall, it’s a bright, uncomplicated life, until Riley’s parents decide to move to San Francisco for her father’s work and upend the girl’s comfortable existence, wrenching her away from school, friends and her beloved sport of hockey.

How will Riley weather this difficult transition? Will she recover her “old” self or sink deeper into depression as she moves on to adolescence? Who among her dominant emotions will save Riley?

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The film, it is revealed, was born in the mind of director Pete Docter, who in 2009 observed his then pre-teen daughter’s personality changing, turning “more quiet and reserved.”

This triggered childhood memories for Docter, whose family relocated to Denmark when he was young, and felt a sense of isolation within his new surroundings, seeking solace in drawing that eventually led to a career in animation.

Excited by the prospect of making a film about this transitional period in a young person’s life and the need to understand the workings of the mind, Docter researched human behavior and consulted with psychologists, including Paul Ekman who had “early in his career identified six core emotions – anger, fear, sadness, disgust and joy.” There was another one, surprise, but Docter reportedly found it too similar to fear and limited the number of emotional avatars to keep things manageable.

So who saves Riley from the funk she has sunk into? Surprisingly, it is Sadness. As Joy observes, digging into Riley’s bank of memories, it is Sadness that alerts others that she needs help, and motivates family and friends to gather round her and offer the emotional support she needs not just to “snap out of it,” but also to turn to other resources for her own stability and sunshine.

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One other thing I took away from the movie is that every emotion—“good” or “bad,” positive or negative—is valid and has a place in a person’s overall personality. It is in finding the balance, the right mix and appropriate times to let loose, that allow one to interact with the environment, to find peace and comfort when needed, express exuberance or empathy when called for.

Midway through the movie, the hubby and I wondered whether the children in the audience were “getting” the movie, much less enjoying it. We weren’t sure if such abstract insights held any value for children looking for humor and antic fun in a Disney movie.

But the laughter erupting from the children around us told us that the children were having a good time, too. True, the movie is bathed in bright colors and dizzying action. Another reason for the greater appeal is the presence of Bing Bong, an imaginary character from Riley’s early childhood, who is part elephant, part anteater, part cotton candy. It is Bing Bong who helps Joy and Sadness, who get sucked out of the control room, navigate their way back from the land of long-term memories to the islands of personality, and hop on the “train of thought.”

I wished my son and his wife watched the movie with us, as it provided keen insights into parenting and the way the minds and feelings of children (and pre-teens) work. But then, even without our watching “Inside Out,” I think he and his sister survived our shared parenting, so maybe it means we didn’t do too badly, did we?

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The weekend was also presaged by a night at The Theatre at Solaire for the opening night of “Singin’ in the Rain,” the musical stage remake of the movie that famously spoofed the silent movie era and immortalized the title song and sequence, as well as other familiar, beloved numbers.

Of course, there is no comparing the original movie cast, composed of such musical (and terpsichorean) legends as Gene Kelly, Debbie Reynolds and Donald O’Connor. But for this stage version, which starred a mostly South African cast, the scene stealer is Lina Lamont, played by Taryn-Lee Hudson, who imbues the role popularized by Jean Hagen (who scored an Oscar nomination, to boot) with comic pizzazz and sexual oomph.

Soon after the intermission, the sound system onstage went kaput, leading to an uneasy 20 minutes or so as it was explained that some “electrical problem” had occurred. Did the onstage rain before the curtain came down have anything to do with this glitch? Whatever, despite the lashing rains onstage and off, “Singin’ in the Rain” was enough of a diversion to make us forget the three hours it had taken to find our way to the show.

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TAGS: Amy Poehler, Disney-Pixar, emotions, Inside Out, Paul Ekman, Pete Docter, Singin’ in the Rain
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