An early scene of Pixar’s 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 Riley’s 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 driver’s seat of Riley’s brain. For most of Riley’s life, Joy (Amy Poehler) has been Riley’s 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 doesn’t love us anymore,” Sadness (Phyllis Smith) says, reaching for the control panel to take over Riley’s mind. “I should drive.”
The premise of “Inside Out” is a heady concept for an animated children’s film, centering on emotional intelligence — or understanding the role emotions play in daily life and how to keep them balanced.
Pixar’s latest shows how layered and complex the messages of children’s films have become.
Fairy tales and nursery rhymes were originally adapted as clever ways to teach children moral lessons about life’s 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 who’s familiar with Disney films understands Snow White’s big mistake was talking to a stranger and why Bambi’s mother had strict rules about playing in the meadow.
Since Disney’s first animated effort with “Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs” in 1937 through the 20th anniversary of “Toy Story” this year, the messages of children’s 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 haven’t 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. “They’re the same kind of messages today, we’ve just changed the ways we talk about them.”
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 didn’t make children’s movies, he made family movies,” Sammond said. “The goal was always to give parents and children something to talk about together. They’ve 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., Disney’s 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 America’s 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 Andy’s missing father walked out on the family. From there, Pixar’s 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 it’s really about the male family members making room for the female members (as superheroes),” Sammond said. “They’re 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.
“It’s not that the messages of the films are getting more complicated, it’s that Pixar is doing a better job making stories that will reach people on a number of levels,” Bozdech said. “It’s easy to make a poop joke for the kids, but their parents aren’t 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, would’ve been seen as kind of ridiculous,” Sammond said. “But it resonates really well with families and how our attitudes about emotions have changed.”
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. “It’s a brilliantly simple narrative device.”
In most Disney movies, the separation of protagonist and guardian is tangible, like when the ringmaster puts Dumbo’s mother in chains or when Nemo’s father crosses an ocean to find him.
With “Inside Out,” the separation is more symbolic — even though Riley’s 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 child’s perspective, it’s about gaining independence from the parents, and that’s scary,” Sammond said. “From the parent’s perspective, it’s saying, ‘OK, I’m going to have to let go, and that’s 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 it’s also about community, trust and the rewards of finding belonging.
“Much is made in that movie of Lady’s 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 they’re together, (Tramp) has a collar, too, so he’s found his place.”
Bahar argues that many Disney films resonate so strongly with adults later in life because they’re spiritual.
“‘Sleeping Beauty’ is a rich example,” Bahar said. “When she’s awakened, it’s a metaphor for not being present and engaged in your own life — that’s like being dead. It’s 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.”