Inside Out’s Defense of Sadness

Last weekend I went to see Inside Out, finally. Pixar movies are generally good, but this one was more than just good as a story. A lot of stories claim to be out to teach kids important things, and often this is somewhat true, and even more often it’s the writers puffing themselves up or advertising themselves to concerned parents. This story actually teaches kids about their emotions, in a way that isn’t cloying or condescending and is genuinely fun.

Spoilers ahead.

The story is about Riley, eleven year old girl, goofball and hockey lover, who has just moved from Minnesota to San Francisco and having difficulty adjusting. But Riley isn’t the protagonist. She’s the setting. She’s a genius loci, inhabited by her own mind, which includes imaginary friends, little mental construction workers and, running the show up at headquarters, her emotions; Joy, Anger, Fear, Disgust, and Sadness.

The protagonist is Joy, voiced by Amy Poehler, whose goal is to keep Riley happy, all the time. She bosses the other four around quite a lot, which mostly works out well. She does what good bosses do. She delegates, lets everybody do the job they are best at, and tells them all what a great job they are doing. And all the emotions do have jobs. Disgust manages Riley’s sense of style and hygiene. Riley stays healthy and socially acceptable because of her. Fear warns Riley about dangers. Anger helps Riley stand up for herself when things aren’t fair. They are dedicated to taking good care of her.

The only trouble is that Sadness seems a little out of place. Joy doesn’t know what purpose Sadness serves, so she mostly tries to avoid letting Sadness do anything, which of course makes sadness sad. Of course, everything makes Sadness sad. If Joy tries to remind Sadness of gleefully splashing in puddles, Sadness will think about boots slowly filling with cold water.

During the move, Joy’s inability to understand Sadness leads to a crisis. Things keep going wrong and Riley misses everything from back home, but Joy keeps stopping her from feeling sad. But not feeling sad isn’t making Riley happy. It just makes her frustrated and confused. Eventually, Joy’s interference causes both Sadness and Joy to get lost in the recesses of Riley’s mind. They have to cooperate to get back, while Anger, Disgust and Fear have to manage Riley all by themselves.

One of the interesting aspects of the film is that Joy seems to know how to manage Anger, Disgust and Fear because she can make them happy. I think this works because they are all  proactive emotions. They all seek to have some clear effect on Riley’s life. When Riley avoids doing something gross, Disgust feels good. When Riley takes precautions, Fear feels good. When Riley stands up for herself, Anger feels good. Joy likes making people feel happy, so she can work with all of that, but Sadness doesn’t have a concrete mission. Sadness’ function is mostly to experience, which actually makes her more like Joy than any of the others.

We feel angry, disgusted or afraid in service of some concrete survival oriented goal, but happy and sad exist mostly for their own sake. The movie does make a point about how both connect us to other people, how sharing in somebody else’s pain or pleasure is something we need to do in order to have genuine relationships. Joy is great at connecting with people when things are good, or she can make them good, but she’s terrible at empathizing with their pain. Sadness is much better at that. But the movie also does something interesting; as a result of losing Joy and Sadness, Riley becomes in danger of losing her ability to feel entirely.

Controlled only by Fear, Disgust and Anger, Riley is constantly reacting in a situation where no reaction is appropriate. Like all kids in the middle of a move, she doesn’t have control over the situation, and the most productive thing she can do is accept her situation. She can’t do that without processing it. Without Sadness, she isn’t able to mourn her loss, just as without Joy she is unable to find the bright side. She keeps reacting and reacting until she turns herself numb. I think it’s an incredibly, tragically realistic depiction.

By making Joy’s character arc revolve around accepting Sadness’ role in Riley’s life, Pixar shows kids that it’s okay to feel sad when things suck. It gives them a framework to understand something that is hard to accurately explain with words. It accomplishes all of this without a clunky speech or “state the moral” moment. That is exactly what good stories with a point should do.

Go see it, guys. Quick, before it leaves theaters; if it’s too late put it on your wishlist for when it comes out. Just go see it.

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