“After young Riley is uprooted from her Midwest life and moved to San Francisco, her emotions – Joy, Fear, Anger, Disgust and Sadness – conflict on how best to navigate a new city, house, and school.” – Wikipedia
Much has been said about the film Inside Out… it has almost a perfect score on Rotten Tomatoes, it looks gorgeous, and it made many – including me – shed some tears. I think it’s safe to jump past whether or not it’s a quality film (few would argue this) and dive straight into the mind of the film and what it might suggest to ours.
In the amazing Pixar tale, two of the emotions get sucked out of the “control room” in 11-year old Riley’s head. We could equally get sucked into two pitfalls when looking at this heartwarming tale:
1. Thinking of ourselves and others in terms of singularÂ emotions
“My friend X is like Joy, my friend X is like Anger”. These emotions, the film clearly illustrates, are in all of us; the point is that everyone is all of these, and we see that clearly as the camera swoops inside the head of Riley, mom, dad, dogs, cats, etc. While it might be fun to make a joke or two about our cast of friends and family being different emotion-characters, we need to make sure we don’t poorly stereotype those around us. The cruxÂ of the film is an animated representation of ourÂ complex struggle withÂ emotions – it’sÂ a unifying, shared internal struggle – and not a cast of caricatures in our lives.
2. Applying this too definitively in psychological understanding.
Some critics have pointed out (as even the creators admit) there are FAR more emotions. They initially had more emotions running around in the script, like “optimism” and “ennui”. We can’t start analyzing ourselves or diagnosing others based on a Kindergarten level, truncated snapshot of our emotional life. Additionally, it poses some questions: are we ruled by our emotions? Are we ruled by our memories? There’s a curiousÂ moment when Anger exclaims Riley “accepted it” in regard to one of their ideas, so where is the source of the will? Is there room for another film focused on Inclination Management? While there are some great takeaways from the film, some may start speaking authoritatively about managing our emotional lives with this film as a template.
Clearly, the film addresses the need to grow upâ€¦ to mature, to understand and balance joy and sadness. Joy seems to be managing Riley’s life in a way that believes “I canâ€™t be emotionally healthy or functional if Iâ€™m carrying sadness. I have to avoid things unless it creates (memories of) joy.â€ Joy is deathly afraid of a sad core memory, confused and uncertain about sadness-mixed memories. It’s an avoidance that leads to emotional paralyzation, that bypasses sadness and goes straight to depression. When Joy and Sadness are ejected, all thatâ€™s left is anger, fear and disgust. We know what happens then:
“Anger, Disgust, and Fear… attempt to maintain Rileyâ€™s emotional state, but inadvertently distance Riley from her parents, friends, and hobbies, resulting in her personality islands slowly crumblingâ€¦”
Riley isn’t able to engage the world with a healthy understanding of joy and sadness: likewise, if we think we have to have joy all the time, or overly fixate on our sadness â€“ we wonâ€™t have healthy function.
At the film’s conclusion, we see that many new core memories are blends â€“ they’re mature. Also, we understand that Riley – and all of us – areÂ going to have sad core memories, and thatâ€™s okay. If thatâ€™s a debilitating facet inÂ our lives, we have a problem muchÂ like Joy. We’reÂ refusing to accept reality and demanding that “it HAS to be joy or nothing at all!”At the beginning of the film, Joy even calls their collective emotional band “Team Happy”.
The film stresses an important truth: weÂ need to be able to engage the day with joy, sadness, anger, disgust, and fearâ€¦ not only when itâ€™s happy. Joy wants to avoid all situations that might containÂ sadness, anger, disgust and fear and the frustration that comes with that. We find thatâ€™s going to lead to a shut-down. This is what reviewer Carolyn Pirtle had to say:
“By the time Joy and Sadness finally make it back to Headquarters, Joy has learned to see that she and Sadness are more closely intertwined than she ever would have thought possible,Â that joy which overlooks sadness is vapid and fleeting, and sadness without joy is despair.”
Since the protagonist of the story in Riley’s head is Joy, we primarily see the conflict and struggle she must go through. Joy needs to learn that:
Life is not about control.
Life is not avoidance of sadness or “less than joyful” situations.
It’s accepting there’s going to be a mix of emotions in each memory made.
It’s okay to have a sad memory.
One commenter on Reddit pointed out how the movie subtly makesÂ the distinction between depression and sadness. Riley starts to fall apart due to the absence of both Joy and Sadness.“When the darkness starts to sweep across the control panel, I saw that as a metaphor for depression, as well as when Joy says something along the lines of, ‘If we can’t get back to headquarters she won’t be able to feel anything anymore.’ They depict depression as a lack of emotion rather than too much sadness.”
Midway through the film, Sadness sits with Riley’s imaginary friend Bing Bong as he laments: Joy watches as Sadness listens to him: he cries it out and then is able to move on. She deals with his sadness and is able to keep going. Some people thought Bing Bong might turn out to be the villain, out for his own interests… but he isnâ€™t ruled by his anger, fear and disgust.
Meanwhile, as the film progresses we see that Anger’s actions ultimately disable the control console, rendering RileyÂ depressedÂ andÂ apathetic. She trusts in her emotions – in her own mind – and her decision to run away could have cost her dearly. Anger convinces her to run away: she sees it as reasonable when itâ€™s anything but.
Whoever trusts in his own mind is a fool, but he who walks in wisdom will be delivered. – Proverbs 28:26
While it’s not something the movie really gets into, our emotions CAN be corrupted and distorted. Honestly, outside the confines of a Pixar level conflict, things can get so warped that there becomes “Joy” in a child who enjoys hurting small animals. One can get rewired to experience disgust and cynicism with people who are kind and helping others.Emotions CAN get bent â€“ they can have a value judgment. The minute you assume an objective morality, the game becomes about MORE than inner emotional adjustment and well-being. If we’re all just physical beings caught up with the struggle in our own heads, where does any true or objective wisdom come from?Â
Who has put wisdom in the inward parts or given understanding to the mind? – Job 38:36
I wish the film had more to delve into about self control, and self-discipline, but you can only do so much in less than 2 hours.Â What it does convey is the need for the acceptance of sadness in our memory and emotional life, and our need to move on and mature with that in mind.Â However, to get there, they use a unique narrative device that, I believe, breaks the completely internal world they’re pretending to work with. How does Riley get to this place of maturity? It not only takes the struggle and resolution between Joy and Sadness, but also a very demonstrative sacrifice.
Thatâ€™s right: oneÂ character has to sacrifice their life, and it’s not the imaginary Cullenesque boyfriend from Canada who says â€œI would DIE for Rileyâ€. At a critical juncture in the narrative, Joy is in a seemingly inescapable pit, Sadness can’t pull her out, and the other emotions are powerless to remedy the situation. A long forgotten imaginary friend lays down their life to enable Riley’s mind to “right itself”.
Think about it for a minute…
You can try to say the sacrifice of Bing Bong is a metaphor for growing up, but thereâ€™s something willful aboutÂ Bing Bong’s decision that doesnâ€™t quite fit. Itâ€™s not about Riley’s mind admitting the friend is imaginary or simply letting him go, thereâ€™s a narrative conceit that the imaginary friend literally makes a decisive act. Heâ€™s been perpetuating his existence, after all: he doesnâ€™t want to cease to exist. and yet, he lays down his life so Riley can be made whole.
The director says of this scene: â€œBing Bongâ€™s sacrifice is what gets Joy back up there, and (it’s at that point) we know Riley is going to be okay.â€Â
Have this mind among yourselves, which is yours in Christ Jesus, who, though he was in the form of God, did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, but emptied himself, by taking the form of a servantâ€¦ obedient to the point of death… – Philippians 2:5-8
While one might say this all takes place in Riley’s head, the narrative structure reinforces the notion of someone sacrificing for the well-being of others. Does this inspires us? Most of us arenâ€™t asked to die… so what are our sacrifices? Often this equates to time, resources, orÂ sometimes itâ€™s our emotional preferences. Thereâ€™s a trend today that says we shouldnâ€™t sacrifice our emotional well-being for others. So, when we learn it wasn’t appropriate for mom to have Riley force a “smile” a surface level understanding could make us misunderstand the point. A mistake we could take from Inside Out is that we never sacrifice our emotionality for others.
True, itâ€™s probably not wise to expect that kind of complex emotional sacrifice from an 11 year old… but I know many a parent who has smiled through pain for their child. Certainly for a daughter, dad or mom mightÂ sacrifice wearing their inner lives on their sleeve.
Indeed, putting aside your present emotional state and sharing with someone in their sadness can be an act of empathy, and thatâ€™s what mom and dad do at the end. To be clear, we donâ€™t see them share or validate Riley’sÂ anger, disgust, or fear (there are some dangers there, though we canâ€™t go into that in depth). Suffice to say they meet RileyÂ where she’s at in appropriate aspect and empathize where they’re able.
And yet, at the core, another “friend” sacrifices in the ultimate way for Riley to be renewed.
Is the best we can hope for is some buried, imaginary friend in our own head to sacrifice for us? The director said when they tested this scene, people would say “isnâ€™t there some way to bring Bing Bong back?”His answer was, essentially, that “well, childhood canâ€™t come backâ€¦ so yes, he has to die.”
Still, in other narratives, this archetype doesn’t die, does it? Bing Bong certainly isn’t alone in this trope Consider these:
There are otherÂ stories – particularly recent children’s stories – wherein a character makes the self-sacrifice play â€“ but then at the last minute DOES survive. In even more stories this characterÂ lays down his life, but because of the nature of who he is, he can “return”. Wreck-it Ralph and Baymax are great examples. It begs the question about this film, and our fantasy narratives:
Is ourÂ “savior” merely in our mind?
Is the only way to mature theÂ END of childhood… the DEATH of childhood?
I think the reasons adults are drawn to these kinds of stories WITH their children is because part of us hopes something of that doesnâ€™t HAVE to dieâ€¦ and that perhaps the one that saves us isnâ€™t gone forever.
The story of Christ, the gospel – is one where our friend gives his life, but overcomes death.
The story of the gospel is one where weâ€™re told we need to retain something childlike.
And yet, in our shared story… there is aÂ need for maturity.
This is a story of conflict (as most – if not all – stories are). Riley, her parents, Joy and Sadness… they all face different forms of trials and obstacles that must be overcome, and understandings they must ascend to. We always leave a film loving a story like this, but in leaving we don’t want OUR story to emulate it: we fear trials of our own and only want to experience them vicariously (preferably in fiction). We want “joy” in the form of ever-present happiness. Scripture, however, advises a different script:
Count it all joy, my brothers,Â when you meet trialsÂ of various kinds,Â for you know thatÂ the testing of your faithÂ produces steadfastness.Â And let steadfastness have its full effect, that you may beÂ perfect and complete, lacking in nothing. -Â James 1:2
It has taken me forty years to understand how this isn’t demanding a forced, faked, imminent “happiness” in the face of adversity (like Joy might attempt in the film). The keyword is “count” – it’s an accounting issue. Another translation says â€œreckon it as joyâ€. The idea is that it is being regarded as counting toward a joy yet-to-come. It’s like making a deposit in the bank, counting the trial as an experiential deposit in a treasure of joy in a kingdom yet to come.
Itâ€™s not pretending that youâ€™re joyful in the moment – itâ€™s not faking it – but it’s persisting, pushing forward with regard to that greater joy, a promised fulfillment of joy. That’s how we can “have this mind among yourselves…which was yours in Christ Jesus…by taking the form of a servant”.
Inside Out would encourage us that we can engageÂ a reality that brings a mixture of fear, disgust, anger, sadness, AND joy. Scripture would add that this is because thereâ€™s a greater joy yet to come. Our struggles are deposits toward future, TRUE joy, and thatâ€™s what Christ’s sacrifice enabled us to embrace… as well asÂ equipping usÂ in the way weÂ serve others… like when Bing Bong gives himself up for Joy.
In fact, Bing Bong didn’t just give himself up for Joy to live for herself. What does he say to Joy?
“Take her to the moon for me.”
Are there Rileys in our lives?
If someone gave themselves up for us, who might we help “get to the moon?”
We could leave this story thinking about our OWN emotional well beingâ€¦ or leave with the inspiration to care for others.
Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewal of your mind, that by testing you may discern what is the will of God, what is good and acceptable and perfect. – Romans 12:2
This film provides fertile ground for great questions:
If someone gave themselves up for us, who might we help “get to the moon”?
Getting started, how do we get our minds renewed?
Is this an entirely internal struggle, or do we need external help?
God’s word would laud his creation of mankind as image-bearers, equipped with amazing and decisive mindsâ€¦ and yet the answer for our condition is not internal. We need the help of someone who is definitely NOT imaginary… one who doesn’t fade, even if we’ve forgotten him. This is also someone who calls us to retain a childlike aspect of our faith, while also calling us to a maturity as we grow up in Him.
I don’t know about all our readers, but when I look back on my life â€“ itâ€™s really easy to get upset about core memories being sad. And yet… a lot of the time this is my own oversimplification. Most of my memories are multi-hued like we see Rileyâ€™s at the end. I can focus on how horrible it is that thereâ€™s sadness there, or I can see that itâ€™s complex and thereâ€™s joy in there as well.
And I take utmost joy in the fact that someone laid their life down for me… and that I am transformed by His renewing of my mind…and heart…and soul…from the inside out.