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Toddlers, Depression, and ‘Inside Out’

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IOposterMichael and I have put our toddler on a training regimen. The goal: being able to sit through and enjoy Star Wars: The Force Awakens when it hits theaters in December. One of the subgoals was to get the kid to sit through any film without unnecessary potty trips and unbearable antsyness. That subgoal was reached a week ago when we went to Inside Out. After all, it is a truth universally acknowledged that toddlers are engaged more by animation than live action.

I had heard the critical and popular praise for Inside Out, and due to recently binge-diving into Parks and Recreation, my appreciation for Amy Poehler had grown. I was excited to see this film. It did not disappoint. Of course, our toddler didn’t quite get the intricacies of the story. This wasn’t Cars, exactly. Much of the action was abstract. But there were zero trips to the potty, and after the truly lackluster short, “Lava,” the kid was engaged.

What really got my appreciation, however, was the depiction of beginning depression. As a person who has personally dealt with depression, I recognized the presentation of it as visually on point. Spoilers ahead.

Riley, the little girl who is the protagonist/setting, has been forced to relocate to San Francisco for her father’s job. She is initially as positive as possible, attempting to alleviate her parents’ stress when the moving van is delayed. She is, as they repeatedly remind her, their happy child. This normally happy disposition is represented by the character Joy (Poehler) being in charge of the emotion control panel in the girl’s brain. But as she encounters difference after difference from her Midwestern home, the stress of change creates havoc in the emotional control center. Sadness, voiced by Phyllis Smith, begins to uncontrollably touch her memories, turning previously happy ones into sad ones. Joy desperately tries to stop this, causing all kinds of problems–the rising action of the film.


As Joy attempts to block sadness from touching Riley’s memories again and again, Riley fails to deal because she’s not allowed the required core emotion to process her move. She has just lost the only life she’s known, and while there is re-making and happiness to be had in the future, that seems difficult and distant in the moment. Ultimately, she needs to grieve, but her self-imposed requirement to be happy is blocking that sadness from being felt.

In the climax of the film, Riley decides to run away, go back to her former home where she can be happy again. As she gets on the bus, the emotional control panel inside of her starts to gray out. The emotions who are trying to spark reactions in her can’t get through. The communication panel between her emotions and her physical body is breaking down. Only when Joy tells Sadness to take over, and Sadness removes the idea of running away from the control panel, does Riley feel her emotions again and begin to deal with her sense of loss.


That graying panel signaling the loss of emotional connection is brilliant–a perfect visual analogy for depression.

I began my current teaching job 12 years ago. That first year was the most stressful I’d ever had. My anxiety was off the charts. That also meant my body was pumping out as much cortisol as it could. Cortisol is the hormone that controls that survivalist fight or flight response, and its how the body deals with physical and emotional stress. But coritsol isn’t meant to be produced by the body in high amounts over the long term. Over time, the body simply runs out of it. The prolonged stress actually caused my body to burn out its ability to respond to my anxiety. My anxiety turned to into depression as my body couldn’t do anything but disconnect from the emotional control center that kept signalling Fear.

Few people understand the differences between sadness and depression, but the film makes it clear. Sadness is a healthy, cleansing emotional response to loss. Depression is actually the inability to feel–disconnect is at the heart of it. Disconnect from life, from consequences, from friends, from family. Disconnect from self. And connection, often, is what will turn it around, just as Riley had to turn around and connect with her parents through their sadness, to feel it, to accept the loss, before being able to make a new life.

My toddler may not understand this now, but in a few years of life experience and emotional understanding, I hope the analogy will still be there, making more and more sense.


Author: Erin Perry

I'm a high school English teacher specializing in AP Literature and Film Analysis. I'm interested in most things geeky, including superheroes, vampires, zombies, teen culture, postmodern philosophy, pop culture analysis, and combinations of the aforementioned. Follow me on Twitter @eriuperry.

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