Now, a fair warning: this article is heavy in spoilers. If you haven’t seen the movie, I wouldn’t recommend reading it.
Inside Out is a coming of age story for Riley but also for Joy. Actually, I should say that it’s a coming of age for Riley through Joy. While Riley comes to term with the dramatic changes in her life – not only moving, but also dealing with loss and loneliness, she, in the form of Joy, also realizes that life can’t only be made of happiness.
That’s when the conflict between Joy and Sadness comes in. Of course, we, as people, understand Joy’s wish to keep Riley happy at all costs. It’s a desire that’s only natural, right? We all want to be happy. Plus, Riley is a young kid. There’s no reason why she would be anything but happy. That said, the movie asks the question: does happiness equal joy?
From the beginning of the movie, we know that Joy is the leader of all other emotions. She uses Fear, Anger, and Disgust as tools to keep the little girl happy while she downright rejects Sadness. In Joy’s eyes, Sadness is tears, negativity, a love for everything that’s not Joy, and therefore the opposite of happiness. Joy can’t deal with that. She wants to see positivity everywhere and can’t – or most likely won’t – see beyond that. Joy is a control freak. So when things go south in Riley’s life, to the point where she seems to lose herself, bringing her back to her original state becomes Joy’s obsession.
Of course, at first, it seems only right that Joy wants to fix Riley. At the beginning of the movie, Riley is perfectly content as she is. She is an honest, loving, goofy kid who loves hockey. Simple, right? A happy little girl with simple needs. Her whole personality at that point is built by Joy, as shown by the glowing golden of all of her core memories. There is seemingly no room for anything else and, as seen multiple times during the first act, Joy won’t leave any. It makes sense. If Riley’s head being filled with memories, if Riley’s entire personality up until now is made of joy because of, well, Joy, any other colour (meaning emotion) showing up in the memories can only mean bad news, right?
However, is it any accident that on Riley’s first day of school, when she tries to talk about her life in Minnesota, Sadness starts uncontrollably touching memories? What is a happy memory touched by sadness? My best guess here is nostalgia. Longing. Joy doesn’t know that. Nostalgia is a complex emotion. Until now, Riley only knows very basic, very simple one. She can’t wrap her head around that new one. For Joy – and Riley, Sadness is her polar opposite, and therefore an emotion to keep as far away as possible from the control panel. That’s why she doesn’t understand when a glowing blue core memory, created by Sadness, appears. More than that: she can’t accept it. How can she, when until that point she is all Riley is about? As for Sadness, she tries putting in the core memory because she is simply doing her job – and because being part of Riley’s personality would make her feel like she belongs. Don’t forget that Sadness, despite her seemingly endless whining, is a natural emotion of Riley’s and she’s been denied access to the control the entire time. This means that as a character, she is a little desperate to be a part of the team, but it also means that Riley herself is probably a kid that almost never cries. So when it happens, not only does she not understand it, she very predictably freaks out. Internally, of course.
Riley loses her core memories – the ones that form her personality, not really because of Sadness, but because Joy – and through her, Riley, can’t let go. Riley needs to learn how to cope with change and grow up. For that to happen though, Joy has to learn to let the other emotions exist and share the power. This becomes clear when you look at how things happen in Riley’s parents’ heads, where emotions all sit around the control panel and discuss every decision. As I said before, Riley as she is at the beginning of Inside Out, is a simple girl. She feels one emotion at a time, partly because her emotions would literally fight for the control. In a way, Joy is the leader because otherwise, Riley’s mind would have been chaotic, but it also makes her deeply unbalanced. It’s hard to cope with anything when you’re walled in by your own positivity.
So the journey has to happen. Joy and Sadness are gone for a time, lost somewhere deep in Riley’s mind, letting Fear, Anger, and Disgust rule. That is full of meaning. The fact that both Sadness and Joy go away means that Riley can’t see anything positive in her new life, and does not even have the power to be open about her negative feelings. She can only react to what is happening around her with the emotions she has left. After being in denial, Riley finds herself angry, frustrated at her situation. I don’t know about you guys, but I sense a little bit of Kübler-Ross in there.
As for Joy, if she is still the leader at the beginning of her journey, she learns her lesson the hard way. The Riley she has always known – the one she has forged, disappears before her eyes and when nothing is left of her, Joy herself disappears for a time, a disappearance symbolized by her fall. If you’re down with the whole “Joy is Riley’s avatar in her own head” hypothesis, that means that Riley sees herself crumble. Hello Darkness, my old friend. Plus, what does Joy do before falling down the pit of darkness? She tries to get rid of Sadness. Joy’s decision to leave Sadness out almost destroys her.
When Joy disappears, when Real Life Riley loses everything that made her who she is, she decides to run back to her past, the only thing she thinks can bring her peace. Instead, if for a small amount of time, her decision renders her unable to feel anything. Not being able to connect to your own feelings is beyond being sad or angry and closer to mental illness. Meanwhile, Joy literally hits rock bottom, which breaks her positivity wall and finally makes her vulnerable enough to be open to change. In that scene, she holds a memory that she thought joyful and that sadness saw through a completely different lens – an event that already happened at the beginning of the movie and was mostly played for laughs. Earlier, it just seemed hilarious – and scary, from Joy’s perspective, that when thinking about rain, Joy would think about jumping in puddles of water and Sadness would want to get soaked and numb. With this other memory, that they discuss twice during the movie, Joy remembers an important game when they scored and the team cheered for her, while Sadness remembers that they lost the game and were comforted by Riley’s parents. Joy holds the seemingly sad memory (because Sadness had to touch it) and realize, when she rewinds it, that the beginning of it is still yellow. Sadness touching a memory doesn’t make joy disappear. Sadness is not the anti-Joy. She is simply different. Different and helpful. This calls back an event Joy witnessed earlier, when Sadness comforts Bing Bong, Riley’s almost forgotten imaginary friend. Upon discovering that all his favourite parts of Imagination Land, where he was born, were being destroyed and replaced, he was devastated. While Joy tried to push his negative feelings away under energy and focus, Sadness sat near him, listened, and let him cry until he felt better. Sadness is empathy, vulnerability, and openness.
Joy finally understands that Riley (or, you know, herself) needs to grow, see things from different perspectives, and embrace the world with all her emotions. With that in mind, she is able to let go of the past her (which is good, because the past her is already gone anyway). Bing Bong’s death is a symbol of that change. When we met him, Bing Bong was as desperate as Joy to keep Riley exactly as she was, which was a state of almost absolute bliss. The moment he accepts that he has to go to let Joy come back – to let Riley grow, is heartbreaking, because growing up is, in a way, heartbreaking. It is also the ultimate sign that change is on the way and that the time of simplicity and innocence is over.
So Riley can’t be fixed, which means she has to be rebuilt. That can only happen if Riley comes to terms with her own feelings. That’s what Sadness is there for. Why is she the one who was able to take the idea of running away out of Riley’s head? Maybe because running away is a defense mechanism against the hurtful events of Riley’s life, when what she needs to do is to face those events and accept them, even if it means being sad for a time. Crying, in Inside Out, is acceptance. Bing Bong cries over the loss of his rocket and moves on. Joy cries over her failure and moves on. When Joy knows what to do, she guides Sadness to the control panel herself. Joy lets Riley cry, which means that Riley lets herself cry. Only then can she move on and create a new life for herself. She starts to feel things in a more complex way and her personality develops. She becomes not only made of Joy, but also of Anger, Fear, Disgust, and, of course, Sadness.
Inside Out is also about Sadness. Sure, Sadness is not the one who changes, Joy and Riley are. However, both Riley and Joy have to learn that it’s okay to not be happy, and more than that, that you might even need to be sad sometimes. This seems like a simple enough truth, but it is something that even adults forget sometimes, just like Riley’s parents do when they ask her to keep smiling and never talk about their sad feelings themselves. Everybody in Inside Out has to open up to Sadness, because Sadness is not there to ruin a sunny day or spoil your fun. She’s here to help you. The world is big, things just keep happening to you that you can’t control and here you are, little you with your little brain, trying to make sense of it. It usually works better when your inner self is balanced and at peace. That means being able to smile, to cry, to be afraid, to get angry, and yes, to navigate your world without being poisoned by broccoli. Inside Out is about loss, destruction, rebirth, feelings, imagination, and memory. Inside Out is ultimately about being human.
One last thing and I’ll leave you alone. Consider the fact that Pixar’s movies are mostly made for kids. Kids are one of the most underestimated, mistreated audiences there is, just for the amount of people in and out of the industry who think that they’re dumb and fragile, and therefore need to be safely kept away from any kind of reality. Pixar just made a movie that tells you not only that bad things are going to happen no matter what you do, but that you’ll have to face them, and that you’ll probably need to be sad – an emotion regarded as highly negative by most people, to get there. That, my friends, is how a movie becomes a legend.
– Anais L