I was not expecting to like “Inside Out.”
That’s not to say that I didn’t expect it to be good. Pixar films are consistently high quality and I assumed that this one would be similarly well-done, also considering the things I had heard about Inside Out specifically. I expected it to be good. But I didn’t really expect to like it.
This pre-judgement stems, I would say, from two reasons. First, I will freely admit that I am a tad prejudiced towards animated movies. I don’t know what it is about them (actually, I guess it would be that there are no real people, only cartoon characters), but I am often reluctant and only minimally excited going into animated movies, perhaps with an implicit skepticism about such a film’s ability to provide real emotional depth. Yet, as quality animated films have proved to me time and time again, this assumption is an oversight and, indeed, a simplification of emotional depth and meaning in the world of film.
The second reason for my low expectations was my suspicion of the premise of Inside Out. From the very first time I saw the trailer, I had my doubts. The basic set-up of the movie comprises of an eleven-year-old girl, Riley, going through a difficult transition after she moves with her family to a new city. What makes the movie different (and innovative) is that it explores Riley’s emotional landscape by imagining and presenting an actual landscape, an actual world containing her personified emotions. Joy is a Tinkerbell-like figure voiced by the ineffable Amy Poehler; Riley’s “Emotion Headquarters” is also populated by the explosive and comical Anger, Disgust (Disgust? Really? Disgust made the cut as one of the “core” emotions??), Sadness, and the delightfully neurotic Fear.
This is certainly a very creative concept, and already from the brief trailer it was apparent that the movie would be full of clever visual gags and humour. But the implications of this premise troubled me. It seems to suggest, quite clearly, that Riley’s feelings make her who she is and control her actions. Is this true? Do our feelings really define us; do they really constitute the fabric of our being?
I went into the movie theatre with hesitation and with that underlying sense of expectation I have tried to define above. Despite this, Inside Out was not what I was expecting. Not only did I find it to be “well put together”; I also found it enjoyable. And what’s more, there was great emotional depth and a message that surprised me with its countercultural current.
Let me begin by saying that the animation is beautiful. Knowing what you now know about my animation reservations, this should be seen as especially high praise. The colourful world inside Riley’s mind is a dazzling visual display and is impressively inventive as well, from the literal train of thought chugging along, to the halls filled with orbs of long-term memories, to the dank and dreary land of the subconscious. The movie is also very funny and each of the voice actors contribute meaningfully to the story (even if I still maintain that some of the emotion selections were peculiar… I’m looking at you, Disgust).
But to me, the most fascinating aspect of the entire film is the relationship between Sadness and Joy. Initially it seems as if Sadness is nothing more than an inevitable troublemaker. She taints Riley’s memories with melancholy and has an extremely pessimistic outlook that is counter to Joy’s bright vision of the future. Indeed, Joy treats Sadness in this manner at first, as a kind of necessary evil without any real importance. Joy wants Riley to be happy. And what role can Sadness possibly have to play in the creation and maintenance of happiness?
This is certainly a question we hear a lot today, even if it is not articulated as such, and our contemporary culture answers with a negative. Sadness on the whole, I would say, is shunned. The principal goal, we have been told, is to seek pleasure, to ensure our own happiness. Of course there is an essential distinction between pleasure and happiness, but that is not the key issue here. Although as created beings we are naturally oriented towards happiness, when we begin to seek happiness to the exclusion of sadness, problems arise, because this is a very different thing.
There is such a heightened emphasis these days on being happy and on staying happy that sadness and melancholy are viewed as necessarily negative. They are said to limit us, restrict us, and prevent us from reaching our ultimate goal, which is being and staying happy. Yet this determined mantra of “positive thoughts” cannot entirely shut out sadness; it can bury sadness and stigmatize sadness, but it cannot obliterate sadness from existence.
Being able to experience sadness is part of what makes us human. If we force ourselves to be happy all the time, even when difficulties plague us, then this happiness is no longer authentic; it is only a false straining towards and consumption of pleasures.
In the movie, Joy’s own efforts to pull Riley back from the brink of depression fail. On their own, they are not enough, and it is at this point that Joy comes to understand the integral part that Sadness has to play. Sadness allows Riley to feel rather than to repress the emotions within her; she allows Riley to acknowledge the difficulties she is facing rather than to deny them; she allows Riley to reach out to those around her, strengthening those relationships and receiving strength from this communion; she allows Riley to accept her own weakness, her own brokenness, her own vulnerability, rather than to mask this truth of humanity with a veneer of independence and self-sufficiency. It is Sadness who helps Riley to heal, not by running from her pain but by embracing it.
This leads to a supremely touching moment, as Sadness and Joy hold one of Riley’s “core memories” together. Not only are Sadness and Joy both important in their own ways, they are also often inextricably linked and intertwined with one another. In sadness, there is joy and in joy, there is sadness.
Do our feelings define us? As they are fleeting things which are constantly changing, they do not. Our feelings are not the extent of who we are and they do not make up our deepest identity. But while this may seem to form the imaginative premise of Inside Out, it is not of nearly as much significance as I had predicted. What really comes out of the film is not an idea of enslavement to feelings, but a freedom of the self from feelings. With the destigmatization of sadness, there is no pressure to maintain only certain kinds of feelings or to obsessively pursue pleasure. Instead there is a release- a freedom to feel our feelings, to accept and not hide from our weaknesses, and a deep peace in the realization that it is okay to not be okay.