Inside Out

[Here and Frederica Here and Now podcast; June 16, 2015]

“Inside Out,” the latest animated film from Pixar Studios, is really two movies. One is for kids, and the other is for adults—or, more precisely, parents. But it’s not like other kiddie cartoons that throw in pop culture references and borderline-dirty jokes. This time it’s different.

The kid-level movie is about a girl named Riley, 11 years old, who has just moved to San Francisco from Minnesota. She had to leave behind all her friends, her hockey team, every place that had been dear to her. Now she’s living in an old house that’s dingy and gray, and the neighborhood pizza parlor specializes in broccoli.

So what’s going on inside Riley’s head? We don’t have to wonder, because the film takes us there. Up in “Headquarters,” a team of characters—Joy, Sadness, Anger, Fear, and Disgust—organizes all of Riley’s interactions with the world.

The leader is Joy (voiced by Amy Poehler). She is sparkling yellow and relentlessly upbeat. Here’s how she addresses the rest of the team on the morning of Riley’s first day at her new school:

<First Day clip>

Joy thinks she can draw a chalk circle around Sadness, and tell her to “make sure all the sadness stays inside of it.” Frankly, Joy doesn’t know what to make of Sadness. Early in the movie she says, “I don’t actually know what she’s here for. We can’t put her somewhere else. I checked.”

And that brings us right to the parents-level movie. Parents want to exclude Sadness from their children’s lives. Our whole goal is making sure our kids are happy—we hope that if we raise them right, and they make good choices and stay on track, one happy day after another will add up to a happy lifetime. If we can only keep our kids happy, all will be well. But life doesn’t work out that way. The point of the grownup movie is: Sadness has a purpose. Sometimes, sadness helps.

The plotline gets underway when Joy discovers that some of Riley’s memories are changing. These are stored as videos in bowling-ball-sized translucent spheres, and up till now, most have been a joyous yellow. But now Sadness, plump and blue (voiced by Phyllis Smith), has begun touching the memories Riley has of living in Minnesota. She doesn’t know why she’s doing this. But when she does, a blue haze flows through the scene.

As Joy desperately tries to stop Sadness from touching the vitally-important core memories, she stumbles, and the two of them are accidentally suctioned out of Headquarters, and whisked away to the vast labyrinth where all Riley’s memories are stored. That realm looks like an endless plain of winding, ribbon-like shelves, stretching as far as the eye can see. Joy is determined to get those core memories through the labyrinth and back to Headquarters, or Riley will lose those memories forever.

<Long Term Memories>

Sadness and Joy fill a parental role, in this movie, taking care of Riley without her even knowing what’s going on. This has been a theme in many Pixar movies. In “Finding Nemo” it was Nemo’s dad, who was by nature a cautious type, but gathered the courage to go into unknown territories and risk his life in order to find his son. In “Monsters, Inc” it’s Mike and Sully who persevere through many dangers to get Boo safely back to her home. The most heartbreaking version of this theme comes in “Toy Story Two,” as the toys decide that they will stay loyal to their children, even though they know those children will discard and forget them one day.

The rest of the kids’ level “Inside Out” is about all the challenges Joy and Sadness face as they try to get back to Headquarters. It’s clever and often funny, occasionally abstruse, as when the characters wander into the realm of Abstract Thought and become Cubist versions of themselves. It’s sometimes very moving—but there is no real suspense, because we already know how things are going to turn out. There has to be a happy ending.

Is that always true, though? Well, it is in children’s movies. But for the adults in the audience there’s another way the movie ends.

As her mom and dad embrace her, Riley says, “I know you don’t want me to, but I miss home, I miss Minnesota. You want me to be happy, but I want my old home and my friends and the hockey team.” Her dad admits, “You know what, I miss Minnesota too.” Riley and her mom and dad embrace, and after a shuddering sigh, she smiles.

It looks like there is a role for Sadness after all. It draws people together. It helps people if you listen to their troubles, even if you can’t think of anything to say to make it right, even if all you can say is, “That was sad.” At a midpoint in the movie, Joy is amazed when Sadness says this to another character, and it helps him. Just listening and saying “That was sad” can help.

Parents feel distressed when they think of their children being unhappy, but we may just be backing them into a corner of having to pretend they are happy when they’re not. “You want me to be happy,” Riley says. “I know you don’t want me to, but I miss home.” Sadness has lessons to teach us, and the best time to learn those lessons may well be while still under the care of loving parents. Joy binds us to those we love, but Sadness does too, in a different way. It’s more tender, more vulnerable. So we do well to pay attention to sadness, and not just rule it out. If we demand constant happiness in our children, they won’t always be constantly happy; but they may feel obligated to pretend they are, so we’re not disappointed in them. We can grant them another kind of freedom, another kind of honesty, if we allow them to be sad.

That’s a habit that we might as well start young, because they don’t stay young long. At the conclusion of the movie Joy notes that everything is fine again, and says, “After all, Riley is 12 now. What could go wrong?”

About Frederica Mathewes-Green

Frederica Mathewes-Green is a wide-ranging author who has published 10 books and 800 essays, in such diverse publications as the Washington Post, Christianity Today, Smithsonian, and the Wall Street Journal. She has been a regular commentator for National Public Radio (NPR), a columnist for the Religion News Service,, and Christianity Today, and a podcaster for Ancient Faith Radio. (She was also a consultant for Veggie Tales.) She has published 10 books, and has appeared as a speaker over 600 times, at places like Yale, Harvard, Princeton, Wellesley, Cornell, Calvin, Baylor, and Westmont, and received a Doctor of Letters (honorary) from King University. She has been interviewed over 700 times, on venues like PrimeTime Live, the 700 Club, NPR, PBS, Time, Newsweek, and the New York Times. She lives with her husband, the Rev. Gregory Mathewes-Green, in Johnson City, TN. Their three children are grown and married, and they have fourteen grandchildren.

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