Disney / Pixar

The Power of Nostalgia in ‘Inside Out’

(Spoilers for “Inside Out,” but if you haven’t seen this film yet, remedy that immediately.)

When “Star Wars: The Force Awakens” finally paraded into theaters, nearly every single reaction invoked the word “nostalgia.” This Hollywood phenomenon is, of course, nothing new: from a business standpoint, franchises with a built-in audience are all but guaranteed to make a killing at the box office. Indeed, “Star Wars VII” has ridden that nostalgia wave to groundbreaking financial and cultural success. But there is another Academy Award-nominated movie that explores the concept of nostalgia, and the two films couldn’t be more opposite. “Inside Out,” a lead contender for Best Animated Feature, takes major creative risks both in terms of story and medium. In the narrative corner, the majority of the film takes place inside an 11-year-old girl’s head, the main characters are emotions personified, and there is no antagonist or villain. Medium-wise, the animation effects are completely unprecedented. The novelty works like a charm, but what really attracts audiences to this gem of a film is what also brought those hoards of fans to see “Star Wars”: nostalgia.

As with all of Pixar’s memorable films, “Inside Out” mixes punchlines and gut-punches to evoke both laughter and tears — in this case, working towards a climax in which 11-year-old Riley’s childhood memories are viewed as a bittersweet blend rather than as purely happy or purely sad. The incorporation of nostalgia — this evolved feeling vis-a-vis her childhood memories — marks a key turning point in her adolescent journey towards adulthood. The audience, too, is invited to embark on the rocky road of nostalgia, both through the film’s narrative and through the medium of animation itself.

Sigmund Freud suggests that memories tracing back to childhood are in fact reconstructed memories of those original moments. “Inside Out” does a stellar job with symbolically representing this process, as contemporary psychotherapists are eager to point out. In the film — that is to say, inside the brain of Riley Anderson — individual memories are represented as glass orbs, colored differently to reflect the primary emotion associated with each memory. “Core memories,” the character of Joy (voiced by Amy Poehler) explains, are the memory orbs that hearken back to “super important moment[s] in Riley’s life,” and those are the orbs that power Riley’s distinct “islands of personality.” In neuroscientific parlance, memories don’t merely exist as past events but remain relevant in the present insofar as they inform key aspects of our identities.

To that effect, prepubescent Riley has five “islands” that make up her personality: Family Island, Honesty Island, Hockey Island, Friendship Island and Goofball Island. Over the course of the film, each island faces destruction: Honesty Island, when Riley filches her mother’s credit card; Hockey Island, when Riley gets flustered at hockey tryouts; Friendship Island, when her friend Meg mentions another girl and Riley’s jealousy flares; and Goofball Island, when Riley is pouting about the family’s move to San Francisco and refuses to respond to her father’s attempt to make her giggle.

“Congratulations, San Francisco — you’ve ruined pizza!” (Disney / Pixar)

While the core memories inform the general aspects of Riley’s personality, five key emotions drive her day-to-day actions: Joy (Poehler), Sadness (Phyllis Smith), Anger (Lewis Black), Disgust (Mindy Kaling) and Fear (Bill Hader). Each character/emotion takes charge of the control panel in Riley’s mind (“Headquarters”) when the situation warrants. For example, Disgust controls Riley’s reaction when she is handed a slice of pizza topped with broccoli. (“Congratulations, San Francisco,” Anger chimes in. “You’ve ruined pizza!”) As each memory snippet is converted to its orb form (per “Inside Out”’s symbolic representational matrix), the orb takes on the color that matches the emotion that generated it: Joy is yellowish gold, Sadness is blue, Fear is purple, Disgust is green, and Anger is red. Before the events that set the movie in motion, the vast majority of the memory orbs in Riley’s mind are yellow, and the remainder are solidly one color or another.

Joy in particular maintains an agenda by striving to keep Riley unequivocally happy, literally “coloring” Riley’s memories with her golden glow. But the crucial lesson of the film — for Joy and for all of us — comes at the moment the first multicolored memory orb is produced, a representation of Riley’s first emotionally mature, complex memory. Riley breaks down in tears when her frantic parents confront her about her decision to run away from their new home, and though Sadness appears to be managing the control panel for this encounter, Joy steps in for the restorative family hug that follows her breakdown; together, they create Riley’s first “bittersweet” memory. Though Riley mourns for the idyllic Minnesota childhood she left behind, she simultaneously begins to appreciate the loving family she still has, leading to the introduction of the beautifully complex emotion of nostalgia.

In Contemporary Psychotherapy, Zachary Boren writes about the “pathological manifestation” of nostalgia, a “compulsion to recapture that feeling long lost” that leads Riley to buy that bus ticket back to Minnesota (and back to her happy memories) in the first place. But “healthy nostalgia” — the type that Riley embraces in this pivotal scene — is, in Boren’s words, “a wonderful feeling, a combination of joy of what once was and a twinge of regret that it is no longer.” This nostalgia recognizes that the past is in the past with this “twinge of regret,” but is able to conjure up joyful sentiments as well.

The concept of nostalgia has an ambivalent etymological and historical backstory: it comes from the Greek words “nostos,” meaning “a return home,” and “algos,” meaning “pain and suffering.” In the seventeenth century, nostalgia was considered a medical disease that could be cured by opium, leeches and a trip to the Swiss Alps. Medical practices have certainly come a long way since, then, but humans are still curiously afflicted by — and, indeed, traumatized by — feelings that trace back to nostalgia, both on a macro- and micro-scale. The “pathological” nostalgia alluded to by Boren provides the main seed of conflict in “Inside Out”; Riley desires to move back to Minnesota because she views it as her true Home and the source of all her happy memories.

The turning point occurs when Riley is called on by the teacher in the first day of class at her new school and asked to tell the other students about Minnesota. Emboldened by the opportunity to share Riley’s happy memories, Joy takes the controls in Riley’s mind and calls up the golden orb containing a memory of Riley skating with her parents on an outdoor pond. “It’s kind of a family tradition — we go out on the lake almost every weekend,” Riley enthuses. Yet, suddenly, the memory bleeds blue; out of nowhere, Sadness has emerged and touched the memory orb. Back in the classroom, Riley’s face falls, tears springing to her eyes. “Or, we did, till I moved away.” That shift from the present tense to the past tense — and with it, the shift from joy (we have so much fun!) to sadness (…but not anymore) — symbolizes and literalizes the heavy emotional trauma inherent in the transition from childhood to adulthood.

However, “rapidity of change on its own is not sufficient to foster nostalgic feeling,” U.K. sociologists Hilary Dickinson and Michael Erben write. “There also needs to be a sense that the present is deficient in relation to the lost past.” As Riley finds more and more deficiencies with her new life in San Francisco, she concludes that the way to regain happiness is to seek out and reclaim that “lost past.”

The passage of time is a key factor in eliciting nostalgia, but the sentiment is also closely intertwined with conceptions of place. With the move to San Francisco, Riley’s autobiographical slate is effectively wiped clean. Everything is unfamiliar — from her empty bedroom to the vegetation-topped pizza — and thus contains no references to Riley’s (happy) personal history. She feels lost in this new environment, as if she has no place — a common adolescent sentiment that is evoked on-screen when Riley is unable to find a place to sit at lunch in the school cafeteria.

The bare bedroom in her new house also illustrates this theme, taking it further by expressing the feeling of nostalgia via symbols. When Riley first discovers the empty room, she despairs — Fear, Anger, Sadness and Disgust all chime in from Headquarters with their thoughts about how this new situation is “the worst.” Before things get out of hand, Joy jumps in with: “Hey, it’s nothing our butterfly curtains couldn’t fix!” Soon enough, she and the other emotions are mentally conjuring up the placement of Riley’s bed, trophy collection, hockey lamp, and more objects from her childhood room. These objects from a happier time in Riley’s life signify something familiar and constant. When placed in Riley’s new bedroom, they represent positive, healthy nostalgia, easing the transition out of childhood by situating the old self in the new present, thus establishing a new autobiographical self.

It is through this integration of old (happy) and new (sad) that Riley is able to mature and accept her new reality, while viewing her past through the lens of healthy nostalgia. In the context of the film’s plot, Joy, too, comes to appreciate a new understanding of time and space by recognizing the essential role played by Sadness in Riley’s coming-of-age tale. The turning point of “Inside Out” occurs when Joy realizes that one of Riley’s treasured memories — celebrating with her Minnesota hockey team — was originally rooted in a sad memory, that of Riley missing a crucial shot in a playoff game. It was because of Riley’s sadness that her team sought her out to cheer her up. Riley abandons her plan to take a bus back to Minnesota because she realizes, on a subconscious level, that she can never regain exactly what was lost — and that’s okay. Up in Headquarters, Joy hands the Minnesota memories over to Sadness, and the previously golden orbs take on her signature blue tinge. Only then is Riley able to accept those memories as memories, as moments that cannot be recaptured; only then is she able to successfully incorporate the feeling of healthy nostalgia. As the Doctor remarks in the season 9 finale of “Doctor Who,” “Nothing is sad until it’s over” — and Riley (as well as Joy) need to embrace that sadness before being able to move forward.

Disney / Pixar

“Inside Out” connects with audiences on a personal level by delving into the rocky transition from childhood to adulthood. But the film also reflects a larger cultural nostalgia through its salient use of animation. In her analysis of this type of nostalgia, cultural theorist Svetlana Boym elaborates on the “co-depency” of nostalgia and modern technology: “[N]ew technology and advanced marketing stimulate ersatz nostalgia — for the things you never thought you had lost — and anticipatory nostalgia — for the present that flees with the speed of a click.” In “Nostalgia and Its Discontents,” she explains that “technology that once promised to bridge modern displacement and distance and provide the miracle prosthesis for nostalgic aches has itself become much faster than nostalgic longing.”

Far from “curing” nostalgia, technology has exacerbated it, as we consistently utilize advances in aesthetic and communication technologies to move forward by moving back, in an apparent attempt to recapture what has been lost. Yet according to Boym, this attempt to grasp the past is itself misguided, because “modern nostalgia is a mourning for the impossibility of mythical return, for the loss of an ‘enchanted world’ with clear borders and values.” Boym marks this phenomenon by defining nostalgia not only as a longing for a home that no longer exists, but also as longing for one that never existed in the first place. “Nostalgia is a sentiment of loss and displacement,” she writes, “but it is also a romance with one’s own fantasy.” This element of “un-realness” is uniquely expressed by animation, which inherently presupposes a fantastical element.

Communications professor Eric S. Jenkins delves deeper into the nostalgic implications of animation by extending Roland Barthes’ distinction between a photograph’s punctum and its studium. According to Barthes in Camera Lucida, the studium embodies the larger, cultural significance of the photograph, and the punctum is the detail that “pricks” or “wounds” the individual viewer, often reminding the viewer of the mortality of the picture’s subject. Jenkins argues that animation acts as “another punctum,” one that is “more about life than about detail or death.” For Barthes, a photograph of his mother “both projects him forward to a utopian time and carries him back, nostalgically, to his own past.” Animation does the same for its viewers, many of whom grew up watching Saturday morning cartoons or simply associate the freewheeling illogicality of animated stories with their childhood. “Inside Out,” like all other Pixar movies, is ostensibly for kids, and the colorful, eye-popping visuals are sure to delight young viewers. But for adults, the punctum of animation is that it goes even further, incorporating Boym’s notion of technological nostalgia. The mechanics of animation has progressed exponentially in the last half-century, rendering the constructions of Pixar in 2015 nearly unrecognizable by early Walt Disney standards. Therefore, the loss of childhood’s “enchanted world” is felt even more sharply in films like “Inside Out.” The film’s dazzlingly detailed, computer generated world is a far cry from the soft, muted palette of 1937’s “Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs.”

Boym’s theory of nostalgia as a longing for a past that never was recalls Jenkins’s view that “animation vivifies the never-has-been.” According to Barthes, photographs affect us by generating thoughts of detail and death, but cinematic movement (film and animation) flashes by too quickly to allow for such rumination; instead, it depicts what is commonly referred to as “an illusion of life.” Animation is all the more disconcerting. “How could anyone look at an image of Mickey Mouse,” Jenkins argues, “and think, as Barthes does peering at assassin Lewis Payne’s photo, that ‘he is going to die’?” To borrow poet Vincent Starrett’s words, animated characters “never lived and so can never die.” This “other punctum” experienced in the presence of animation therefore feels misplaced because the referent at which we are directing our emotions is, in a profoundly metaphysical sense, empty.

Because it is not tethered to real-world logic, animation can perhaps teach us about concepts beyond the scope of live action films. Jenkins goes so far as to insist that by “calling into question the photograph’s presumed truth-value,” animation also raises “metaphysical questions about the meaning of life.” This is a lofty claim, to be sure, but perhaps there is some truth to it — a “truth” that cannot be captured by mere “real life.” Live-action movies inherently espouse the how-it-really-was conceit, tricking viewers into taking the images on-screen as reality, even within a fictional context. But animation is interpretation from the outset. Indeed, “Inside Out” depicts the otherwise unrepresentable scientific processes of the brain as well as the layered depth of emotion swirling around in the psyches of 11-year-old girls. “Animators take certain emotions, expressions, or quirks and exaggerate them,” Jenkins writes. Rather than obscuring deeper truths, this exaggeration shines light on them. In the words of animation godfather Walt Disney himself: “Rather than a caricature of individuals, our work is a caricature of life.”

In “Inside Out,” the characters of Joy and Sadness are particularly emblematic of this technique. Joy takes on the metaphorical attributes of a shining star: she glows a yellowish gold and buzzes around frenetically, casting light wherever she goes. Her hair, interestingly enough, is blue, perhaps alluding to the eventual harmony she will find with Sadness, who is both literally and metaphorically blue. Sadness is appropriately shaped like a teardrop, while Anger emits fire from the top of his head when Riley is feeling particularly rageful. These exaggerations are not meant to be taken literally (though in the context of the movie they are utilized to comedic and practical effect), but they more accurately reflect the intensity and vividness of life as we experience it. As animators John Halas and Joy Batchelor assert, “if it is the live-action film’s job to present physical reality, animated film is concerned with metaphysical reality — not how things look, but what they mean.”

“Inside Out” takes its young protagonist, Riley, on a literal and metaphorical journey, as she is uprooted from her childhood home and forced to come to terms with her new life in San Francisco. Unlike the vast majority of children’s movies, “Inside Out” does not feature an antagonist or a villain; instead, Riley — as well as Joy, Sadness, and the other emotions inside her head — must learn to overcome the allure of Zachary Boren’s “pathological” nostalgia in order to embrace a nostalgia that integrates both positive and negative feelings. In the film, this is exhibited by Joy’s gold and Sadness’s blue swirling together on certain memory orbs as a method of creating this complex new emotion. Riley’s struggle with nostalgia is depicted through evocative and imaginative use of animation, with the particular medium making this “illusion of life” feel all the more poignant. “Inside Out” beautifully illustrates the dual nature of nostalgia as a true force to be reckoned with.


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