Inside Out is the latest offering from the geniuses at Pixar. This movie is about emotions. So, naturally, we thought it best to have Vanessa Felhauer — certified counselor and member of Summitview’s counseling ministry — review the film. Beware: There are spoilers.
The new Pixar film Inside Out opened in theaters the weekend of June 19. Typically, I find movies in the comedy genre, especially cartoons, rather inane. I’d much rather watch a good drama with some serious action. But I would have to rate this the best movie I’ve seen this year.
If you aren’t familiar with the plot, Inside Out follows the five personified emotions inside the brain of 11-year-old Riley: Joy (Amy Poehler), Disgust (Mindy Kaling), Anger (Lewis Black), Sadness (Phyllis Smith) and Fear (Bill Hader). They take turns running the control panel in Riley’s head as she navigates a cross-country move with her family. Memories appear as colored balls that roll through the workings of her mind. The colors correspond with the predominant emotion in that memory. As she grows up, “personality islands” form, with fragile bridges connecting them to her memory storehouses.
Joy is a frantic (albeit happy) character trying to run the show. She vigilantly guards against Sadness getting too much time at the control panel and from touching any of the memories and turning them blue/sad. At one point, she draws a circle on the floor and tells Sadness that her job for the day is to not step outside the circle.
Beyond the fact that this movie was genuinely funny, I felt the underlying message had a great deal of depth, particularly for a culture that holds personal happiness as our highest goal. Spoiler alert! Riley has a difficult time with the family's move from Minnesota to San Francisco and makes some poor decisions that begin to deconstruct the bridges to her personality islands. Joy frantically tries to keep Sadness away and only allows happy memories into Riley's long-term memory. But Riley’s self-destructive behavior can’t be stopped until Sadness is allowed to participate. Joy alone could not build deep personality and community for young Riley. Sadness allowed for a richer experience of Joy in Riley’s family and friendships. Riley emerged with a more complex and stable personality in which Joy was less frantic striving to never feel anything bad, and more a calm sense of wonderment at how all of our emotions and experiences work together to create who we are.
And while Pixar obviously shouldn’t be the sole basis for our theology, I do think this is a great message for the church. Too often we take verses such as “rejoice always” (Philippians 4:4) and use them as imperatives to push Sadness away from the control panels of our lives. Like Joy in Inside Out, we draw a circle and tell Sadness not to step outside it. But Joy is not the only emotion available to any of us, and the Joy spoken of in the Bible has nothing in common with the franticly cheerful character in this movie. The Joy spoken of in Scripture is one that is deep enough to endure hardship (Romans 5:3) and abide in the presence of sorrow (2 Corinthians 6:10). If we insist on Joy exclusively running our control panels, we will create a fragile faith — much like Riley’s personality bridges — that simply crumble when hardship comes (2 Corinthians 4:16-18). And it will come (John 16:33).
When Joy is the only emotion allowed at our control panel, we usually communicate to our brothers and sisters that Joy should be running their control panels, as well. When we do this, we don’t love like Jesus. Spoiler alert! As Joy and Sadness wander through Imagination Land with Riley’s imaginary friend, Bing Bong, tragedy strikes: Bing Bong’s rocket wagon gets thrown into the Memory Dump. His own Sadness prevents him from continuing in his quest to help Joy and Sadness get on the Thought Train back to headquarters. Joy unsuccessfully tries to cheer up Bing Bong, but Sadness shows empathy, which proves to be much more helpful. When Joy asks Sadness how she did that, Sadness replies, “He was sad, so I listened to what—” The train whistle blows and we can only infer the rest of her thought. But the point is clear: Sometimes we don’t need someone to cheer us up; we need someone to cry with us, to truly listen to our hurt. As Christians, we need to allow ourselves to feel Sadness so that we can be genuinely sad with someone else. We can’t be so afraid of Sadness that all we do is offer our friends the tickle monster (as Joy does) and a Bible verse, and then be frustrated (like Joy) when they don’t cheer up and get back to living the way we think they should.
While there is clearly a lot in this movie for adults to ponder, many parents asked me if it was a movie to take their kids to. Yes, definitely. Depending on their age, you’re probably going to find it funnier than they will. Most 6-year-olds aren’t going to understand the four stages of abstract thinking that Joy, Sadness and Bing Bong walk through. But on different levels, you will both likely get a kick out of an imaginary friend made of cotton candy experiencing non-objective fragmentation. There is certainly a lot kids will understand, and there are many good conversations to be had with them. Can your kids identify basic emotions? Are they comfortable talking about them? What role are emotions like Anger and Sadness allowed in your home? Talking about their emotional world is a great way to communicate to even young children that you care about their heart. When they experience the destruction of a rocket wagon they need to hear “That’s sad” just as much as Bing Bong did. We all need to hear “That’s sad” sometimes.
So let Joy flit around your heart. As believers, we have a reason to be the most joyful people on the planet (1 Peter 1:8). But don’t be afraid to let Sadness have a voice, too. Sadness is not the enemy of Joy. Sometimes, Sadness helps us experience Joy with more depth and gratefulness (Psalm 126:6).