On Thanksgiving Eve the Hubs and I sat down and watched Inside Out for the first time, and while Up still wins for most sob-induing moments caused by a cute animated movie, Inside Out is a close second. Somehow those master storytellers at Pixar manage to get me almost every time.
That particular combination of loving a fun movie while at the same time being deeply affected by its poignant parts is actually an apt description of Inside Out’s message.
Riley, a girl on the verge of her teenage years, is uprooted from her childhood home in Minnesota and transplanted into the eclectic urban jungle of San Francisco. Her dad is stressed over his new job, her mom is stressed about tracking down the moving van carrying the family’s worldly possessions, and Riley is struggling with adjusting to a new place. The family’s big move happens to coincide with, and helps bring on, a major shift in Riley’s personality and way of thinking. The audience is given a front row seat to this monumental change when we’re transported inside Riley’s mind to meet her emotions: Joy, Sadness, Anger, Fear, and Disgust.
It becomes immediately apparent that Joy has been the one in charge of Riley’s experience of the world, ensuring that each memory she makes is filled with happiness. Brightly colored balls that correspond to the colors of the emotions roll down a chute each time Riley makes a memory and they’re almost all yellow, Joy’s color. When Riley creates a happy memory it comes down the chute as a brightly colored yellow marble, and Joy works hard to ensure that most of Riley’s memories from her childhood are the sunny shade, especially the core memories, the ones that help shape who Riley is as a person.
But then Riley moves away from her childhood home (and, in a sense, her childhood as a whole) and a funny thing happens. Sadness starts coloring Riley’s experience of the world. Joy freaks out and, anxious to maintain control of Riley’s emotions, ends up accidentally getting sucked into long term memory along with Sadness. Now Joy has to find a way back to Headquarters before Riley’s personality is fundamentally changed for good.
That’s the basic set up of the story. Of course, as with any Pixar movie, there are many subtleties and clever plot elements that are impossible to do justice to in a short blog post, but none of the plot elements I’ve described sounds particularly tear-inducing. And on the surface it’s not a sad movie. Bun loves it, Joy is her favorite character, and she definitely doesn’t cry over it. But that’s because she’s approaching it from a child’s perspective, and as the movie points out, that’s a perspective dominated by Joy.
It’s a beautiful perspective, but untenable. As we get older, our black and white (or should I say yellow and blue) world of Joy versus Sadness, becomes tinged with nuance. Memories make us feel both happy because they happened and sad because they’re over, and that is in fact what happens to Riley’s memories at the end of the movie: they become lovely marbles of multicolored emotions, but not before Joy learns to work together with Sadness to make it back to Headquarters.
For most of the movie, Joy regards Sadness as a largely unnecessary nuisance. But there’s a turning point when Sadness comforts Riley’s old imaginary friend, Bing Bong, that she and Joy meet in long term memory. Joy tries to distract him from his pain and it does no good. That’s when we realize that there is a place for Sadness, a need for Sadness, actually. Without sadness, without knowing what it feels like to grieve, it’s impossible to feel empathy. And a world without empathy would be a scary, scary place. Bing Bong sits with Sadness and is comforted, and we realize that sometimes we sit with sadness and are comforted too.
But to reach that realization, Joy must take a backseat and there is great sadness in that as well. It’s that loss of innocence in any coming of age tale that plucks at our universal heartstrings. Growing up is, in a way, the process of letting go of joy so that our other emotions have room at the table, and indeed by the end of the movie Riley’s one seat command center, where only one emotion could be in control at a time, becomes a multi-seat console where all of her emotions are given equal weight.
All of this would be enough to make the movie a worthwhile view, but Riley’s interaction with her parents takes it into five star territory. They are used to seeing Riley as a fun-loving, goofball with Joy in command, and they ask that of her, expect that of her, even in the face of a monumental change. They are not bad parents. They’re actually really great, but Riley’s growing sense of sadness isn’t acknowledged, it’s denied, and it isn’t until they realize that they haven’t given her room to feel more, or be more than a child, that Riley comes to terms with what’s happening, inside and out.
So at this point I am of course crying happy-sad tears. I am sitting with my sadness, empathizing, and it feels good and bad and wonderfully human and it’s a reminder to me that all emotions are valid. My daughters experience a world filtered through joy, and that is something to be cherished. But it’s not everything.
As hard as the grown-up world is sometimes it’s a palette of many colors, some dark and some light, their contrast making our experience vivid, real. That’s a gift we cannot deny our children (or ourselves), the gift of experiences that will color their world and make them artists that paint with a sophisticated, and empathetic, brush.
Image credit: Empathy by Design