Review: Pixar’s ‘Inside Out’ Uses Color and Wardrobe to Visually Characterize Abstract Emotions

By Hollyn Scott

If our emotions were individuals, what would they look like? What colors would they be? How would they dress? Pixar’s “Inside Out,” the animated comedy-drama that takes place inside 11-year-old Riley’s mind and follows her five personified emotions in their quest to guide her through the turmoil of a recent move from Minnesota to San Francisco, answers these questions by deliberately designing the main characters with unique yet fitting colors and wardrobes. The Pete Docter directed movie executes the visual portrayal of Riley’s five abstract emotions, Joy, Sadness, Anger, Disgust, and Fear, in a way that makes us feel a familiar bond with each character and a more humanistic relationship with our own internal emotions.

From the moment we lay eyes on Joy, we are immediately drawn to her yellow skin, which literally projects an angelic glow surrounding her entire body. Yellow usually symbolizes warmth and comfort because of its association with the sun, but it is also an attention getter (think taxi cabs) and, according to Info Please’s website, “It is the most difficult color for the eye to take in, so it can be overpowering if overused.” This is not the case for Joy because her wardrobe dilutes the overpowering color by balancing it with cool colors. Her pale green sundress with blue flowers over her yellow skin makes her appear cheerful and kind, thus successfully mimicking the attributes we typically attach to the concept of joy.


When we meet Sadness, on the other hand, we become consumed with pity, but blue also carries with it multiple meanings. The same article on states, “blue causes the body to produce calming chemicals,” but can also be “cold and depressing,” so Sadness needed to be designed to cause a gloomy reaction, rather than one of tranquility. Her wardrobe accomplishes this by combining a frumpy turtleneck with oversized glasses, making her resemble a shut-in, or someone who is deeply depressed and unconcerned with how she presents herself. In other words, she can only be described as the embodiment of universal sadness.


Anger, who feeds the fuel to Riley’s temper, is appointed the color of red. When I think of red, I think of love because I associate it with a heart or a rose, but the movie’s application of the color is used to represent rage. If Anger were wearing a pink suit, most of us would mistake him for representing love. Instead, the “Inside Out” creators placed him in a white collared shirt neatly tucked into his brown pants and finished him off with a red tie. He’s basically dressed like a mean boss who is always yelling at you for doing something wrong, capturing an accurate portrayal of the abstract concept of anger.


In most cases, green triggers a relaxed reaction because of its prevalence in nature, but green was applied to Riley’s Disgust emotion with the intention that we will associate the color with something gross, like boogers or vomit. Disgust wears a green floral dress belted at the waist and a purple neck scarf with matching purple shoes. Her fashion-conscious appearance allows her to assume the role of the sassy girl who screams at the sight of spiders and gags at the thought of vegetables. Once again, the “Inside Out” creators combined color with outfit to direct our attention away from the serene quality of green, and make us focus on the repulsive ideas associated with the color.


Fear’s purple color is the only one I cannot seem to understand. Most of us relate purple with wealth and royalty, which an article on Live Science’s website says stems back to “Elizabethan England when ‘sumptuary laws’ forbade anyone except close members of the royal family to wear the color,” causing purple to become a symbol for the imperial class. Although Fear’s color does not make perfect sense, his wardrobe is redeeming. He wears a black and white hounds-tooth vest with a blue and white striped shirt underneath, a purple bow tie, and pants in a different shade of purple, all of which clash horribly and give him a Steve Urkel type of look, therefore visually epitomizing someone with an anxious personality and succeeding to personify the emotion of fear in a relatable manner.


Because our emotions are abstract and we have no concrete perception of their appearances, it was important for the “Inside Out” creators to design the emotions so we would all recognize them for their intended concepts and feel a connection with them as they pertain to our own lives. Because the movie does an excellent job of utilizing color and wardrobe design to visually communicate the main characters’ roles, I am giving it a score of 4 out of 5 popcorns. A more understandable color for Fear would have earned the movie a perfect score for character design, but, overall, “Inside Out” gets correct the aesthetic of Riley’s abstract emotions and makes us imagine our own joy, sadness, anger, disgust, and fear through a whole new lens.


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