Everyone is talking about Inside Out. As well they should. The movie is pretty damn great. I had my doubts when I heard that it was going to be directed by Pete Docter, who previously did Pixar’s Up. In Up I felt that he had an extraordinary short film, and then an additional 80 minutes of mess that you would remember the entire thing with the emotional impact of the opening sequence. In short, Up was cheap. And then Inside Out comes along, an entire movie about the emotional arc of an eleven year old girl who is upset over moving.
But it works, and amazingly so. There’s the respect it gives to both girls, and to emotion of sadness. There’s the depth it goes into behind how a person’s character is made. There’s even been discussion about what it means that there’s no villain. But there was something else about the movie that I didn’t think anyone had spoken about yet.
The structure of this film is a bit odd, especially for a kid’s film. There’s no villain, as it has been noted. There’s also a mixed bag about who the movie is about. The protagonist would normally be Riley, the girl going through the emotional journey. But this movie is nearly all metaphorical journey, following Joy and Sadness through Riley’s memories and mind. And it’s on this journey that the structure of this story ends up being woven together in a very strange way. Sadness, an easy scapegoat as a villain, or at least antagonist, ends up becoming the hero of the story. It’s the acceptance of Sadness into current events, and past memories, that allow Riley to confront everything going on her life and cope. Sadness is the one that begins powerless, loses faith in her own value, and ends up finding her worth and saving Riley. Sadness’ treatment is beyond “not the villain”, past being necessary, and is actually becomes the hero. For a movie to do that is impressive. For a kids movie to take this stance is jaw dropping.
And Joy is the antagonist. Villain is too strong and specific a term. There’s no dark motivation. Everything Joy does, she does it with the intention of helping Riley. But her actions are misguided, and eventually she realizes that pushing herself to the forefront constantly is taking a toll on the girl that she inhabits, and loves. Eventually, putting on this happy face, turning a blind eye to sad events, and even trying to whitewash her memories, it all leads Riley to a very dark and unhealthy place. It takes a lot to make Joy see the damage she’s causing. In fact, Riley has to bottom out, emotionally, before Joy begins to see that things are out of her control. It takes a lot of devastation, including the literal leveling of cities, before Joy sees that she is the cause of Riley’s problems.
Some people would say that it’s Riley’s situation that is what is acting as the antagonist, and getting in the way of her being happy and being herself. But by the end of the film she hasn’t overcome her situation. She’s still in San Francisco, her best friend at home is still playing hockey with some ‘amazing new girl’, and she’s still at her new school. What she does overcome is the avoidance that Joy was forcing on her, and to a smaller extent, her mother’s request that she put on a smile to keep her father’s spirit up. Joy is clearly what stands in the way of Riley’s ability to thrive.
It would be easy to take on a snarky tone and say “Joy is the villain, Sadness is the hero. That’s messed up and ironic, and twisted.” But that’s not true. Not even remotely.
There truly is no villain in this movie. There are impediments and poorly executed actions done with the best of intentions. But there is a point to the Joy versus Sadness conflict, and that’s the issue of avoidance. Riley and Joy go through the same journey by way of both suffering due to avoidance coping. Joy does her best to box (or in this case, circle) Sadness into a small corner and be done with it. After all, Sadness is a purely negative emotion, right? Not at all. Without sadness, Riley would slowly have cut herself off from her emotions, and eventually the things she loved as well. Joy’s method of avoidance put up the veneer of happiness, but Riley’s mind needed to embrace the deeper conflicts she was feeling in order to move forward. Early in the movie, we see that Sadness appears to be tainting Riley’s joyful memories when she touches them, and Joy’s reaction is to try to stow them away, out of Sadness’ reach. But This hadn’t happened before, and in fact, it’s not what was happening then. Sadness wasn’t changing the memories from joyful to sad ones; she was reflecting Riley’s need to view them differently. Previously comforting memories became thoughts that triggered homesickness and a feeling of loss. But because Joy held Sadness back, she cut off Riley’s emotional ties to these ideas and ended up destroying the connections instead of renovating them.
All of that is what makes inside out so complex. It gives more respect to the mind of a young woman than I may have ever seen on film. And at the end it shows that her new core memories, the memories that make her who she is as a person, are now mixed. Rather than the black and white of youth (OK, blue, red, green, purple, and yellow), Riley’s memories are swirls of yellow and red for hockey (anger and joy make for great competition), and so on. And what you essentially have at the end of this kids movie is a message that the mind of someone growing up has to be able to balance and combine emotions, instead of sitting on one at a time. Avoidance is the enemy, and embracing one’s inner turmoil is the only way to grow as a person. It’s so nuanced and lovely and deep, that quick moment at the end is probably the most touching part of the whole film. Where other media has often touted the message that one needs the sadness to appreciate the good things in life, Inside Out says otherwise. It says that you need the sadness to deal with the world, and that it can make a stronger person, or at the very least let others know when you need some help. It’s all of these ideas made manifest that makes Inside Out one of the most thoughtful films I’ve seen.