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Pixar's 'Inside Out' shows how sophisticated children's films have become
Inside Out (2015) - photo by Chandra Johnson
An early scene of Pixars upcoming Inside Out is one both kids and parents can relate to.

The Andersonns, having just moved into a new house, are having fun unpacking when a business call pulls the father away at the last minute, shifting daughter Rileys emotions into overdrive. Inside her brain, the characters of Riley's emotions Fear, Sadness, Disgust, Anger, Joy and Sadness watch the events unfold on a big screen through Riley's eyes, standing ready at a control panel that dictates Riley's reactions.

The events unfolding around Riley determine which emotions are in the drivers seat of Rileys brain. For most of Rileys life, Joy (Amy Poehler) has been Rileys primary emotion, influencing many of her most important, personality-forming memories.

But when the family pulls up stakes and moves to San Francisco, Joy has to relinquish more power to other emotions.

Dad just left us, Fear (Bill Hader) says.

He doesnt love us anymore, Sadness (Phyllis Smith) says, reaching for the control panel to take over Rileys mind. I should drive.

The premise of Inside Out is a heady concept for an animated childrens film, centering on emotional intelligence or understanding the role emotions play in daily life and how to keep them balanced.

Pixars latest shows how layered and complex the messages of childrens films have become.

Fairy tales and nursery rhymes were originally adapted as clever ways to teach children moral lessons about lifes harsh realities; just think of Hansel and Gretel: sometimes, evil can look good to trick people. Today, those stories have been updated for their audience every kid whos familiar with Disney films understands Snow Whites big mistake was talking to a stranger and why Bambis mother had strict rules about playing in the meadow.

Since Disneys first animated effort with Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs in 1937 through the 20th anniversary of Toy Story this year, the messages of childrens films have become more sophisticated, more complicated and more relevant to children and their families than ever before.

But University of Toronto Cinema Studies Institute director and author Nicholas Sammond says animated family movies havent changed much over the years the audience has.

The concepts of Disney movies have remained pretty consistent over the years as (have) American values of individualism and self-reliance, Sammond said. Theyre the same kind of messages today, weve just changed the ways we talk about them.

Changing families

Sammond, who wrote a book about Disney films and American childhood, says the American family has always been central to how Disney makes its films.

Walt Disney was famous for saying he didnt make childrens movies, he made family movies, Sammond said. The goal was always to give parents and children something to talk about together. Theyve adjusted things over the years to accommodate new ideas like feminism and racial equality.

As families have changed, Disney and Pixar films have changed to reflect their audience over the years.

As feminism took hold in the U.S., Disneys modern princesses followed suit to some extent where Cinderella, Snow White and Sleeping Beauty all idealized romantic love and marriage, both Belle of Beauty and the Beast and Merida of Brave longed for alternatives.

Sammond says Disney films have also changed as Americas idea of childhood changed.

In the '50s especially, we had a very specific idea of the generic child and a coded, idealized sense of childhood, Sammond said. You see that reflected in films like Pinocchio, where he wants to be real boy, he wants to be the ideal, and he only becomes that through struggle.

Disney and Pixar are still working toward whatever contemporary families see as ideal today, Sammond argues, it might be gender equality, which Pixar has a history of promoting.

Family structure and dynamics have also changed. While Disney characters often have absent or dead parents, Toy Story was the first animated feature to hint that Andys missing father walked out on the family. From there, Pixars depictions of families have only grown more varied, from the childless married couple in Up to power dynamics in The Incredibles.

(The Incredibles) is about family relationships, but its really about the male family members making room for the female members (as superheroes), Sammond said. Theyre playing with the gender roles in a heterosexual family structure.

One way Pixar reaches parents is with better, more sophisticated writing than previous Disney films, said Betsy Bozdech, Common Sense Media executive review editor.

Its not that the messages of the films are getting more complicated, its that Pixar is doing a better job making stories that will reach people on a number of levels, Bozdech said. Its easy to make a poop joke for the kids, but their parents arent that excited.

Sammond says Disney and Pixar films have also worked to mirror issues families are presented with and offer solutions, which speaks directly to parents.

Inside Out is a great example because emotional intelligence, in the 1930s, wouldve been seen as kind of ridiculous, Sammond said. But it resonates really well with families and how our attitudes about emotions have changed.

New interpretations

Sammond says the lessons Disney and Pixar films try to instill in children individualism, self-reliance, the importance of family have remained the same.

The classic Disney narrative is built around separation anxiety, where the hero gets separated from the parent figure and learns a lesson while getting back to them, Sammond said. Its a brilliantly simple narrative device.

In most Disney movies, the separation of protagonist and guardian is tangible, like when the ringmaster puts Dumbos mother in chains or when Nemos father crosses an ocean to find him.

With Inside Out, the separation is more symbolic even though Rileys parents are happily married and clearly love her, adjusting to her new school and life makes her feel emotionally removed from her family. Just like Bambi or Elsa of "Frozen" before her, Riley has to find strength in a situation that makes her feel weak a core Disney concept told in a different way, Sammond says.

From the childs perspective, its about gaining independence from the parents, and thats scary, Sammond said. From the parents perspective, its saying, OK, Im going to have to let go, and thats scary.

But the beauty of classic Disney movies is how their themes can be timeless, says therapist Lisa Bahar, who often uses scenes from Bambi of The Lion King to help patients articulate grief and loss.

Bahar says there are many different ways to look at older Disney movies that make them retain relevance. Lady and the Tramp, for example, might seem like a story about class struggle, but its also about community, trust and the rewards of finding belonging.

Much is made in that movie of Ladys collar, Bahar said. Fans may remember that Lady's friends call her collar a dog's "badge of faith and respectability," while Tramp considers it a reminder of how his owners abandoned him. And at the end, when theyre together, (Tramp) has a collar, too, so hes found his place.

Bahar argues that many Disney films resonate so strongly with adults later in life because theyre spiritual.

Sleeping Beauty is a rich example, Bahar said. When shes awakened, its a metaphor for not being present and engaged in your own life thats like being dead. Its very Zen and very Buddhist in that way.

While the audience for children and family animated films continues to evolve, Bozdech says the age-old positive messages of self-reliance and individualism are in good hands with Inside Out.

This film is so great because it acknowledges complicated emotions kids have and how important family is, Bozdech said. It could give kids and adults a language to talk about their feelings.
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