Inside Out: The Problem of Sadness

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Review by Nate Douglas

  • In his iconic work, Mere Christianity, C.S. Lewis said, “Even in literature and art, no man who bothers about originality will ever be original: whereas if you simply try to tell the truth (without caring twopence how often it has been told before) you will, nine times out of ten, become original without ever having noticed it.” Creation was spoken into existence by God’s Word, and at the end of each day He called it good. Today He still uses Creation to tell the greatest stories known to man. Perhaps the most truthful stories are the ones that mimic Creation. A good story requires something inherently good to mimic – which, according to Lewis, will achieve originality.

    Mimicking Creation explains the originality of Pete Docter and Pixar Animation Studio’s films. After a brief hiatus, Pixar has returned with Inside Out, helmed by Docter, who has written and/or directed some of Pixar’s best (Monsters, Inc., Wall-E and Up). Docter’s films were previously lauded for their originality and Inside Out does not disappoint. The framework for the exterior story is simple: Riley is a young Minnesotan girl who loves her parents and stick and puck. Her world is rocked when her little family moves to San Francisco. The creativity of the film comes into play with most of the story taking place inside Riley’s mind, in a sort of headquarters for five different personified emotions: Joy, Sadness, Fear, Disgust and Anger. Each Emotion controls Riley for a period time, depending on Riley’s situation, sometimes battling each other for control. While Riley has been growing in her formative years, she’s generated what the Emotions call “core memories,” which create personality islands (family, goofiness, hockey, etc.). The move to San Fran, however, starts to turn the order and routine of her mind upside-down; the Emotions lose the core memories and the personality islands start to collapse. To save Riley’s personality, memories, and stabilize her emotions, Joy and Sadness leave headquarters and venture out to retrieve the core memories.

    From the beginning, Sadness is portrayed as a nuisance, constantly meddling with Joy’s mission of spreading happiness. But as their adventure progresses, Joy comes to realize that Sadness has a meaningful role to play as well. When Joy tries to help Riley snap out of her funk, she projects happy memories to Riley’s brain to make cheerful thoughts dominate her mind in an attempt to pull her out of depression – but this fails. Sadness was needed to bring weight to the memories; to provide the nostalgic twinge in one’s heart that lends meaning to the joyful memories, much like Donald Draper holding back his tears as he pitches “The Carousel” to Kodak in the famous scene from Mad Men.

    The best stories are the ones that strike this very note within the viewer. Parents in the theater while watching the opening scene of Pixar’s Up were in tears because they could relate in one way or another to both the joy and sadness being portrayed by Carl and Ellie’s love story. These stories touch the viewer because they convey an enormous amount of truth, though the details may not always apply. Imitation of truth leads to the best storytelling. There are sunny days, but they are made brighter by the storms preceding them. Sometimes the way up is the way down. Sometimes Sadness needs to precede Joy.

    Inside Out also subtly has more to say about the problem of pain than most films that overtly speak to the topic. A government via abortion and imperialism fancies itself God; a self-proclaimed civic deity that is the final arbiter of life and death all over the world. The pain is real for millions of people. But dark days do not preclude truth. They require countermeasures. Right now some brave people have ripped back open the scab of abortion and placed it before the public. This is when David shows up with a slingshot or Daniel opens the windows to start praying. In that very moment of darkness is when the narrative is turned on its head – and that’s when the stories are at their best.

    Inside Out’s response to pain is important as well. Sadness for a time dominates Riley’s emotions, but how does Riley subsequently cope? Joy and Sadness, as well as Anger, Disgust – or any other emotion for that matter, are not equal. But they are all necessary, and all ultimately require love to counter and ground them. Whenever someone is joyful, sad, angered, disgusted or fearful, the answer is always love. But not a self-centered if-it-feels-good love. Like goodness, truth and beauty, love requires something to mimic greater than itself. It requires self-sacrifice. The love shown by Riley’s parents, in addition to the love shown by Carl to Russell in Up, Wall-E to Eva in Wall-E that preceded them, illustrate this wonderfully.

    Despite the grandiose plot, Inside Out was diligent in the details. Docter gives the viewer glimpses of the emotional breakdown of other people, all who were dominated by different manifestations of the emotions. No person is like another, and each person has a specific role. Are you Sadness, shaped like a tear, and blue in disposition? Perfect – you are needed and wonderfully crafted. Your job is to acknowledge pain and sympathize. You make way for joy. Selfish brooding isn’t sacrificial. Life isn’t a Zach Braff self-centered indie flick. Not every person is the protagonist in his or her own story. Rather, if there is truth in Creation, then all are part of one grand story.

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