Pixar’s ‘Inside Out’ – the Importance of Sadness


(Bring your Kleenexes with you and leave any “I won’t cry or get sad business” at the door.)

This entire blog is one big terrible spoiler. Also I want to let everyone know that it does deal with small snippets of depression and potentially sensitive issues. By the way, isn’t sadness cute?

Ae Padilla

I have never seen a bad Pixar movie. Sure there might be some I like more than others, some that I will re-watch if they are on TV and others I might skip over, I’m looking at you Cars 2! But Pixar has this amazing way of appealing to your inner kid and your jaded adult self with some damn good stories. It’s just a fact. If you don’t believe me I will point to its many Oscar wins — as that is usually what people do at this point for the skeptics.

While these films are usually marketed for children the lessons undeniably span to adults too.

Because although the pictures are masked with animation and cheery scores, can a child ever really understand that three minute montage in UP that has us all bursting out into tears? The complexities of marriage, miscarriages, and tangible human problems?

Maybe. But like every other film this company has made there is a profound lesson in its new installment, Inside Out, which debuted earlier this summer.

Pixar does it again with Inside Out – a film which captivates an audience of any age but throws a lesson so jarring and so necessary it speaks to children and adults alike, reaffirming the idea of what society is just starting to come around to.

It’s ok to be sad. In fact it’s necessary. Sadness is never bad, it is just any other emotion. And by not feeling sadness, not allowing it to shine not unnecessarily but as intended, we create further problems than said sadness. We let that sadness snowball into depression.

Equally as important? As a child you do not have to be happy all the time. Nor should you be.

And finally? Our mind of course is a dangerous and powerful thing.

To start with, Inside Out has an extremely basic plot (insert fall and Starbucks joke here.) Eleven year old Riley is moving from Minnesota to San Francisco with her mom and dad and leaving behind her friends, her hockey team, and her school. That’s it. The whole lesson and appeal of the movie stems from the simplicity of this plot. How is Riley, an otherwise happy girl, going to cope with being dealt new problems she never anticipated.

Let’s rephrase this of course to: how is her mind going to accept and deal with these problems.

Pixar, like any other film company, tackles the concept of an adventure in every single one of their movies. Whether it be Flick wandering across the back of a trailer park to find “city bugs” or Woody along with the help of some fellow toys finding his way back to Andy, the “journey” is always embarked on.

What makes Inside Out so different is that the journey from Riley is one she has to make in her own mind. How is she going to deal with not being able to adapt to her school, find friends, and reclaim her love for hockey? I can tell you one thing, it does not start with her boldly setting out to find that out by foot. It comes with her accepting that things will be difficult to deal with. It comes from her thoughts. And that’s what makes this film so damn good.

In a society which demands that people stifle their feelings to “get ahead,” in a society which demands that people “tough it out,” in a society that says “kids can’t be sad” Pixar defies all of this and says humans, particularly children, are equally complex as adults in their own head and that they reserve the right to be.

It’s a message driven across the film as we are given direct insight into Riley’s brain. Riley’s emotion, the five emotions pegged for humans as fear, anger, disgust, joy and sadness, are animated as their own people filled with agency. Voiced impeccably by the likes of Mindy Kaling (disgust) and Amy Poehler (Joy) each character acts as their respectable emotion to keep Riley as content and happy as possible.

We are introduced to Joy as the spunky energetic character and ultimately the compass of Riley’s life. Almost every other emotion passes quickly enough, but mostly all resort back to feed Joy. Sadness does not however. Throughout the course of the film Sadness grabs hold of Riley’s memories (preserved in the film as glowing orbs) and tries to tamper with them. By doing so she makes them blue (which of course is the color equated with sadness for the rest of humanity.) As a result, Joy and the other emotions try to limit her from destroying Riley by sending her off to the other side of the room, or I suppose in this case – brain.

As expected though, Joy’s dismissal of Sadness sends Riley into a downward spiral and leads her to after many terrible days in her new city – spoiler alert – go to a ridiculously sketchy bus station in hopes to venture back to Minnesota.

The stakes might not be as high as we have seen in other climaxes physically, mostly because I am going to stop myself before I start talking about what could happen to a young girl if she was left alone at a shady bus station, but the stakes are mentally high.

Riley could fall into a deeper web of emotional issues than what she was already going through. It is quite possible she could blur the lines with actual depression.

In the nick of time though, after Joy and Sadness get lost from their headquarters and wander around Riley’s brain back to their emotion control panel, we have our happy ending. It takes about an hour or so of fighting on both Sadness and Joy’s part and a whole lot of other plot but we have it.

The thing is it’s not from Joy finding her way back to headquarters to give Riley the happiness she has needed for the past couple of days. She, Joy, is not “the winner.”

Instead we have Sadness as the winner. We have Sadness as what ultimately drives Riley to leave the bus station and go back home to her parents to tell them that she is unhappy. We have Joy allowing Sadness to shine. And we have, this is important here, Sadness not being stripped of its moment prematurely.

When Riley breaks down at the end of this movie and hugs her parents they encourage her vulnerability by what they say but also by what they do not say to her. Her parents do not try to reason with her by stating “you have a good family, friends, house etc. There is nothing to be sad about when you have us.” They do not make her see what she should be grateful for; they do not dismiss her feelings. Instead they say they miss their hometown too as she does. And they allow her to continue to cry on her own terms – the crying being the physical embodiment of the feeling she is mentally experiencing.

It would have been easy for the parents to dismiss her crying, to silence it, or as many people do with children’s emotions — belittle it. But they do not. And by not doing so Riley accepts that sadness is an appropriate emotion to not be embarrassed or ashamed of.

Sure Riley’s “default” emotion or rather the autopilot of her life might be Joy or at least a form of content-ness but Sadness plays an important role in her brain too.

More than just emotions though we also are able to tap into a whole other world, different compartments of the brain. We see Memory, we see Subconscious, we see Dream Productions, and my favorite (I do tell stories for a living after all) Imagination Land. And it’s important we see them the way we do as concrete objects to what is relatively the most abstract thing we have but encounter on a daily basis – our mind.

Pixar does it right here too. In a movie that takes place entirely with what we can’t actually see we are given actualities. We see those mysterious parts of the brain personified. We see Riley’s imagination world change from a virtual candy land she would have loved as a six year old to her perfect boyfriend. Joy is puzzled about this, concerned even, and for a second the audience might be as well. But then we realize that growing up is inevitable and dealing with issues, emotions that escalate on the brink of puberty, is just as inevitable.

Its then that we have that aha moment, possibly along with our character, that the journey of the mind is as important as the journey of the body.

And this journey comes from accepting the emotions that accompany each event in your life, starting as a child. What Inside Out states adamantly is that not only do we have to accept our emotions as being valid but also that we should not compensate for our own feelings. Should in context to our emotional responses has to be a word we completely forget.

An example of this comes from a scene in the film in which Riley’s mom steps into her room just two days after they move into their new house. Throughout the opening of the movie the family is dealing with the hurdle that their moving truck has been lost somewhere across the United States. As a result Riley is sleeping in a sleeping bag on her floor with nothing around her. She wants, even if she cannot verbally describe it, to tell her mom that she is unhappy. She wants to not only allude to her sadness, but even perhaps anger that the furniture in her room is not there and that making friends is more difficult than she thought it would be. She wants to convey disgust perhaps even at the state of the dead mouse downstairs and the dingy living arrangement. But she does not because her mom says something along the lines of “We are proud of the way that you are handling this and we all need to be happy/supportive for dad and how difficult it is right now.”

Now I am not saying that there is anything wrong with this statement or that the mom herself is being unsupportive of the situation her daughter is in. We are talking about a Pixar film that has two alive and encouraging parents if you can believe it, I am pretty sure this mom is just giving some friendly motherly advice. But when Riley hears this she feels the need to be strong, to mask her unhappiness, and to deal with her problems alone. Even though I can confidently say that her mom would want her to tell her if she felt troubled Riley shies away from this. She should feel better. It shouldn’t be a big deal to her.

What does this mean? Recognition from children about what they think is appropriate comes earlier than you would ever think. And to her whether it be because sadness is associated with shame by society, by her parents, or by herself she won’t acknowledge it till the end of the movie. Let’s assume for a second that this wasn’t a movie with a one hour and thirty run time but instead a plausible real life situation. If Riley at that moment, even the day after, voiced her opinion on how she felt, she would have plain and simple felt at least a little better. Her emotions would not have bottled up spilling over and leading to rash and dangerous situations like running away.

When we bottle things up, us as humans, we eventually spill over. It can take us days, months, or even years to finally get to that point but it will inevitably happen.

And remember that in the context of Inside Out we are talking about a privileged girl who does not have to deal with some disturbing and troubling issues that eleven years old deal with. That is not to dismiss any problems that she has but this point absolutely must be made. Because it could be, and is, worse for some people. Depression can be ignited even quicker with those who deal with it permanently or who have a worse environment.

Let’s dive into the idea of the abstract as the concrete again. In this world Pixar created it is possible. Let’s talk about how Pixar sets up a movie which helps us understand what people with mental health problems are going through, particularly in this case, those with depression.

First let me state that depression is linked to this movie frequently. I would not say that Riley is medically depressed, that she would be diagnosed with depression. Rather Sadness, Fear, and Anger are a permanent part of her, driving that autopilot for a solid amount of this movie. None the less I have heard many people speculate that this movie alludes to, rather intentionally or not, what it means to have depression.

We are provided with a unique opportunity here, one that does not happen often in cinema. We can see how the inner parts of the brain work by themselves. The external is secondary to the internal. Again, rare and powerful at the same time.

I argue that depression works almost closely to how this movie portrays Riley’s forming depression. All emotions are fighting to keep Riley happy, Joy the most so. But Joy’s attempts are in vain. The more that you ignore the sadness the more power it holds, just as it does in this movie. And just as depression does.

Equally with depression, all thoughts are overwhelming. They never quite finding the equilibrium they need to be make you a balanced person. And as much as they try, and they do try, it’s a constant feeling of being out of control. Depression is not passivity, nor is it always just sadness. Instead depression is the ability to improperly control just how much sadness has its effect.

In a mind where depression was taking place in this medium this would be its equivalent. Sadness would be controlling the switch board at almost all times and Anger, Fear, and Disgust would be allowed to come out of their corners in small increments. Joy would helplessly still be trying to find her way back to headquarters. It’s not that Joy does not exist in those with depression, rather like in the context with Riley, she is just having a hard time being able to be find her way back. Understandably if Joy is not in headquarters, almost nothing can be done about it until the depression is treated. Whether that be by a support system or self-recognition (as is the case with Riley and her parents) or by an outside source (if we are looking realistically about this it looks something like medication, therapy, or acceptance.)

If we went into the mind of someone with depression as we go into the mind of our protagonist in Inside Out every memory, as Sadness displays, could be turned blue because it is possible to taint and destroy our own memories when depression is in complete dominance.

Those battling depression, even fear as the dominant trait as say a comparison to anxiety, will understand the complexity of that “lack of control.” It is not that depression happens every day this dramatically but rather Joy will always, once again, get lost from headquarters and Sadness will always be just a little too prevalent. Of course apathy will be connected to this all as well.

In the end, the personification of emotions shows us their power and explains a number of important points. The beginning of depression looks a lot easier when you look at it like this. And the ways to fix it seem not overwhelming but doable. Sure it requires work as Riley had to do work, but the results are stunningly positive. Going through the grieving process eliminates the depression forming or the formed depression and as a result sadness is only fleeting and never permanent.

Defense mechanism need not to be set up because every part of the human experience should be welcomed.

I would say go watch the film to enjoy it and understand it at a greater depth but at this point you and I could both probably write a thesis on it.


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