JOY IN THE MIDST OF SADNESS
Where to even begin with this one? Pixar’s Inside Out isn’t their best film, true. But it may just be their most creative. And as strange a claim as this may sound, it’s probably their most realistic to date. By setting the bulk of the story in 11-year-old protagonist Riley’s mind, director Pete Doctor and company were free to create a fantastic and otherworldly vision without compromising reality with talking toys, talking dogs, or talking cars. The resulting work is beautiful, heart-breaking, and then heart-healing.
The plot is simple: a mid-Western girl is uprooted due to her dad’s new job in San Francisco, throwing her into internal turmoil. At its most basic level, it is a coming-of-age story, a child encountering her first experience with suffering. But what happens in Riley’s mind is not so simple. Emotions never are. Her primary emotion Joy is convinced that it’s her job to keep the other emotions of Anger, Fear, Disgust, and Sadness (especially Sadness) in line in order to give Riley as happy a life as possible. When she tries to manipulate the established system, though, she and Sadness end up in the deeper parts of Riley’s mind, trying to find their way back as they watch the personality of the girl they love crumble to pieces all around them.
There is plenty of humor in the Pixar style, though. The screenplay squeezes every ounce of psychological and mental humor it can in imagining the world of the mind. The understanding of neuroscience that went into the production is astounding and never distracts from the humor, but becomes it strongest proponent. The voice cast is perfect. Perfect. Perfect. Especially notable is Ms. Poehler as Joy, Phyllis Smith (the Office) as Sadness, and Richard Kind (Spin City) as Riley’s preschool imaginary friend Bing Bong. Inside Out finds itself as an early contender (victor even?) for this year’s Best Animated Film Oscar – and I wouldn’t be surprised if it ends up getting an Oscar nomination for its screenplay too.
But Inside Out‘s greatest gift to us is a lesson that is hard to learn, because it demands suffering to go along with it: Joy is not the same as Happiness, nor is it the opposite of Sadness. This is the lesson that Joy must learn. And indeed, when we try to shut down any of our emotions or label them as “bad,” instead of learning to process them in the light of the Gospel, then we eventually end up losing our ability to feel anything at all. We need grief to grow just as much as we need happiness. That does not negate Joy; it helps it grow stronger. The film serves as a great talking piece for parents, especially parents for kids with trauma.
My one word of warning to that second group of parents is that the film shows Joy as the first emotion to appear at the birth of Riley. This makes sense because Riley is blessed with two loving, devoted parents. But for many kids, this may not be the case. And while the movie opens up a great opportunity to address this, it could also be painful for some children in the beginning.
There are some truly beautiful moments in the film, not just visually, but emotionally, because it taps into the pain of being human. Parables of empathy, compassion, sacrifice, and understanding abound. Christians in particular should be inspired by this, as we are sometimes the most guilty of disregarding the feelings of others. We love to be right. We love to be heard. And we also have a tendency to disregard ever-changing feelings in exchange for exalting the eternal soul. But to do so neglects the important fact that God has wired our soul, body, feelings, and mind all together in a beautiful design – otherwise He would not command us to love Him “with all [our] heart, and with all [our] soul, and with all [our] mind and with all [our] strength.” (Mark 12:30 NIV) After all, Christ had feelings too: Anger (tossing tables over in the Temple), Disgust (the Pharisees’ treatment of the poor), Sadness (the death of his friend Lazarus), and Fear (praying in the Garden). These are important aspects for understanding both his humanity and his divinity. Processing our feelings through the lens of the Gospel can only make us more Christ-like, not less.
All that to say, go see Inside Out. Take some tissues and be prepared to console your more tender-hearted kiddos, and then relish in the Gospel conversations you can have afterwards. Thank you, Pixar. We will be back.