Inside Out: It's OK not to be OK

This Academy Award-winning film about the complicated interplay of emotions in our heads is one of Pixar's best.

Inside Out: It's OK not to be OK

As promised, this begins The Pixar Project, where I’m going to review all of the Pixar films in the run-up to the Dec. 25 release of Soul. If you know a friend or relative or Pixar aficionado who’d enjoy this project, please pass it along.


Inside Out is a masterpiece of ingenuity and storytelling and truth-telling.

Eleven-year-old Riley had to move from Minnesota to San Francisco because of her dad’s new job. A happy, well-adjusted child, Riley left a lot behind — friends, a hockey team, life as she’d ever known it.

The outward conditions of Riley’s life steered her emotions — Joy, Sadness, Fear, Anger, and Disgust — and they responded appropriately to keep Riley upright and thriving as a pre-teen young woman. It was Joy’s show to run, and she ran a tight ship, and to be honest, life had been pretty sweet up until that point. Only Joy didn’t know life could ever be anything but what they’d experienced together for 11 years.

But life is more complicated than that, and it’s right around the age of 11 that many of us come to that realization. This is one of the most insightful films ever put out by Pixar for that very reason. Its reimagining of how our interior lives are conducted, the little creatures/lifeforms that control us and look out for us and wreck us, feels, intuitively, like it must be true.

Joy, the group’s fearless leader, is insistent on herself as the ultimate goal; all actions should be to maximize joy and there is no problem that can’t be tamed with more and more happiness. That message is a trenchant observation about how we as a society value and prioritize positivity and shy away from any and all signs of negativity. We do not encourage stillness in moments of sadness; we’re more prone to consider it wallowing. We look to what the person is doing to alleviate their sadness, and we celebrate the effort because effort is equated with a desire not to feel bad.

The film spins its wheels as it perpetuates that worldview; it feels familiar because we encounter it so often in our own lives. Change doesn’t happen in the film until Joy’s eyes are opened to the value of Sadness, the emotion she’s tried to control and contain because she thinks she knows better. She views Sadness as an inconvenience, something to be managed but ultimately a bit player in Riley’s inner life. Sadness’s seemingly annoying habit of turning all Joy’s golden memory orbs blue whenever she touches them is a constant frustration to Joy; the anti-Midas’s touch is ruining all of what Joy considers the only relevant work being done inside of Riley, which is to say, her work.

Joy gets her comeuppance down in the abyss of Riley’s mind where forgotten memories go to die. She looked at one of her golden orbs, a memory of happiness when Riley’s hockey team celebrated her and lifted her onto their shoulders, and upon closer inspection, Joy found that the flipside of the golden orb was a blue, sad side. The memory began with a painful reality for Riley: She’d missed a shot that cost her hockey team a big playoff game. She was sitting in a tree, alone and broken, and her parents found her and climbed into the tree with her to remind her she was loved. Her team found and celebrated her as a leader and their friend. Joy realized that those people came to help Riley because of Sadness.

It’s fitting that Joy’s biggest annoyance is Sadness, because they couldn’t exist without the contrast of the other. The other emotions could cause all kinds of havoc for Riley, but Joy seems particularly vexed by Sadness. They are opposites but also symbiotic. It’s Sadness that breaks through the nothingness that Riley was feeling as she was running away, and once Sadness took centerstage, Riley ran back home and collapsed in tears. She was finally free to admit that things were not OK.

Sadness touched every single one of Joy’s Core Memories and turned them from gold to blue. Joy finally understood that was necessary, and that with the passage of time and the changing of circumstances, Sadness’s blue hue was the proper color for these memories. It was sad that those things were so far away now, and Riley deserved to be able to mourn those things as a way of appreciating how incredibly special they truly were.

What a message for 2020. The country has seen unrivaled deaths and sickness due to COVID-19, joblessness and isolation as well, on top of the regular, everyday battles we’ve all faced. In a year that’s looked so different from anything we’ve ever known, so many are struggling, and not just struggling, but struggling with the struggling itself. There have been countless reminders and admonitions from people on social media that it’s OK not to be OK right now, however that may look.

Sadness is an uncomfortable emotion all around, not just for the person experiencing it. There is perhaps no more impotent and useless feeling than seeing someone you care about suffering and struggling with an internal hurt that you can do nothing to fix. Instinctually, we recognize this, and perhaps that’s one of the forces that drives our society’s focus on positivity: the desire to spare others from the awkwardness caused by our sadness. As understandable as that may be, we’re doing ourselves a disservice.

Cinema Therapy, a YouTube channel that pairs a family therapist and a filmmaker together to review movies, had a deeply affecting quotes their review of Inside Out: “There is a type of love that is only experienced through sadness. There is a type of joy that is only experienced through grief.

That is the idea that I took away from this film. That is the idea I’m trying to take from this year.


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