The Vindication of Sadness: Pixar Wins Again

*Just a heads up: I’m writing this review with the assumption that you’ve already seen the movie. If you haven’t seen the movie, GO SEE IT. Otherwise, prepare for spoilers and summaries that don’t make sense without the context.

On Sunday, I walked into the movie theatre with a three year old, a nine year old, and a handful of adults to watch Pixar’s new film “Inside Out.” Ten minutes in to the movie we were all glued to the screen.

“Inside Out” is one of the most important movies I’ve seen this year. In true Pixar form, “Inside Out” is silly enough to entertain young children, sophisticated enough to interest adults, and profound enough to teach everyone something about what it means to be human.

One of the things I love about Pixar is their attention to detail. From colors, to set design, to plot structure, to each line of dialogue, everything is fixed with meaning and purpose. This is especially true in the appearance, personality, and character arc of Joy and Sadness.

Inside Riley’s head, we are introduced to five personified emotions who help operate Riley’s daily interactions and develop her personality. They all work in the “headquarters” (get it?). At the helm is Joy. She works tirelessly to ensure that every one of Riley’s childhood “core memories” are happy. Memories in this case are colored glass balls formed and stored after significant experiences in Riley’s life. For example, yellow is the color for Joy; so if the glass ball is yellow, then Riley has created a happy memory.

But Joy isn’t the only emotion that colors Riley’s memories. There are four others:

  1. Disgust—a broccoli-green pretty-girl who can sense “cool” and “gross” a mile away.
  2. Anger—a red, stout, fire-hydrant-like character who looks for any excuse to give someone a piece of his mind.
  3. Fear—a purple, gangly, bug-eyed character who has a running list of everything Riley should be scared of.
  4. Sadness—a blue, short, round character with glasses two sizes too big who tends to mope and drag everyone down with her sensitivity to all things sad.

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Each emotion helps Riley interpret and respond to the world around her. In this case, they literally color Riley’s world.

Joy, however, is peculiar compared to the other emotions. As the fifth and dominant emotion, she has a bright yellow body topped with deep blue hair almost identical to the color of Sadness. She also seems ephemeral; every time the caJoymera zooms in on Joy, the edges of her character look pixelated and blurry, as if she’s about to float out of the frame and disappear.

On her own, Joy has a tendency to forget the other emotions. She can also be utilitarian (almost tyrannical) in the way she uses the other emotions for her own benefit. She is particularly mean to and forgetful of Sadness.

So it’s odd that Joy also bears the color of Sadness since Sadness is opposite to Joy in almost every way. She’s short, round, and solid; she moves slowly; and she can usually be found rolling around and crying on the ground because it helps her “slow down and obsess over the weight of life’s problems.” While it would’ve been nice to tell a story that proved pure and unadulterated joy to be the ideal human emotion, the film-makers at Pixar know that life isn’t that simple.

One of my favorite moments in the movie is the scene where Sadness comforts Bing Bong, Riley’s imaginary friend. It is Sadness’ moment of vindication. She’s no longer the dead weight Joy drags around in the maze of long-term memory but a character who can empower others. At this point in the story, Bing Bong has fallen into deep melancholy realizing that Riley will forget him, and as a result he stops leading Joy and Sadness back to the Train of Thought. After several failed attempts to cheer Bing Bong up, Joy is prepared to leave him behind. But Sadness draws close to comfort him.

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In Sadness, Bing Bong finds a friend, someone who can empathize with his loss. After a good cry and a friendly hug, Bing Bong is inspired to help Joy and Sadness finish their journey to headquarters. It’s no accident that Joy cannot comfort Bing Bong since her cheeriness and desire to get back to headquarters blinds her to Bing Bong’s own personal needs.

In the same way, it’s also no accident that Joy looks like she’ll float away and Sadness has to be dragged around. Joy needs Sadness to keep her grounded, to remind her that sometimes sad things happen to people and to deny it or to sugar coat it only makes it worse. Similarly, Sadness needs Joy so she doesn’t wallow in life’s overwhelming problems.

The final scene of the movie ends with a new aesthetic for Riley’s headquarters. The memory balls are no longer of one color, but of two or three. The control panel is larger and every emotion has a particular station essential to the overall emotional health of Riley. Joy no longer tasks Sadness with reading the operation manuals in a faraway corner of Riley’s mind; they now work side by side.

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If nothing else, “Inside Out” has provided a new and rich metaphor for how we think about the complexity of being human. In particular, “Inside Out” reminds us that our joy and sadness have to be reconciled to each other. An emotionally healthy human being is one in whom each emotion is balanced with the others. Any other relationship is just childish.

Sequels and prequels could be made (and I hope will be made) that explore the relationship between all five emotions. I’m especially interested in exploring what the effects of bullying, media saturation, violence, romantic relationships, and friendships look like in this analogy (also, who doesn’t want to hit the puberty button to see what happens to Riley’s emotions?). Pixar hinted at such explorations at the end of the movie as we got a glimpse into other character’s minds. I hope they follow through.

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