Inside Out and the Purpose of Sadness

Total Spoilers for Inside Out ahead!

Pixar’s latest is curiously simple in its execution. The main plot revolves around a pair of personified emotions, Joy and Sadness, as they wander through the collapsing mental world of an 11 year old girl. While the actual locations of their journey are rather disposable, a dream production studio here and an abstract thought void there, what drives the deeper story is how all the events happening in the cartoonish world of the mind affects the little girl in turmoil.

While the always bubbly Joy is the protagonist of the film, the setting (and stakes) are firmly centered on Riley and her heartrending move from the warm feels of Minnesota to the discomforting strangeness of San Francisco. And Joy, the leader and cheerleader of Riley’s emotions, finally hits a wall finding herself unable to keep Riley happy in the midst of overwhelming disappointment and loss.

At the beginning of the film, Joy introduces each emotion and explains their purpose. However she cannot think of a reason or function for Sadness. Her whole role, she believes, is to shut out any sad feelings and create only happy memories for Riley. It is these continually happy days that preserve Riley’s personality islands which Joy has worked so hard to build and maintain.

In one of the film’s more inspired decisions, Riley’s memories are revealed to be flowing spheres that roll into place and light up with whatever color emotion they represent. There is something quite satisfying how a happy moment leads to a new yellow ball or a sad moment brings a rolling blue ball. My two year old decided they were Easter Eggs.

Memories are such intangible things. Feelings are such fleeting things. Animating them with weight and mass gives them legitimacy. It shows us that what is going on inside us is real, important, and valid.

What is most touching about the film is how it tries to show an honest portrayal of what it looks like to possess a human mind, a mysterious web of connections inside our brain that confounds even those who study it. Is it really possible for someone with emotions to ever fully understand emotions?

I found myself in the days after the film getting angry, feeling sad, and finding joy. I can see the little buttons going off in my head seemingly controlled by tiny forces outside of my jurisdiction. I also see it in my family, often quite hilariously.

The finale is the right kind of ending for such an ambitious idea like this. It has a message and one that is not easy to learn or apply. Joy accepts that she cannot simply force Riley to be happy but that she needs to let her grieve the loss of her Minnesota childhood. Things will never be the same. Her pure childlike joy cannot be recreated as it once was. She is growing up, maturing, and realizing that life is more complicated than she once thought.

Uninterrupted joy is no longer possible. And sadness is not something that can be suppressed and avoided. Joy begins to remember that Riley’s happiest moments were often preceded first by sadness. There is a purpose for sadness. It allows us to let go of things we can’t hold onto. It helps break down the islands that we used to rely on that are no longer stable so that we can build new ones. And most of all sadness makes us vulnerable and dependent on others, bringing us closer to other people in a way that happiness alone never can.

Inside Out is painfully honest in its approach, reminding us that life is not made up of Goofball Islands and instead laden with unexpected mixtures of both joy and sadness, anger and disgust, fear and other moments forgotten along the way.

Perhaps the most difficult aspect of Riley’s mind to accept is the deep sense of loss that her transformation from child to adult takes on her imagination. This is represented best by the breakout character Bing Bong, her imaginary friend whose flying rainbow wagon have long since been ignored.

When Bing Bong faded away disappearing into oblivion, my daughter looked up at me and asked worriedly, “Where did he go?” She is too young to understand the complicated mechanics of memories or the narrative device of the heroic sacrifice, but she was concerned just the same wondering if Bing Bong was okay, if he was going to come back. I replied with the only words I could think of that would make sense to her little mind. “He went bye bye.”


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