Mini-Movie Review: Inside Out

MV5BOTgxMDQwMDk0OF5BMl5BanBnXkFtZTgwNjU5OTg2NDE@._V1_SX214_AL_Pixar strikes again. With its latest feature, Inside Out, the celebrated animation studio has once more managed to fashion a work that combines striking creativity with real insight into the human condition.

Inside Out renders our ever-changing internal experiences as a cleverly imagined world behind the eyes. The hub of this mindscape is the appropriately named Headquarters, in which a handful of personified emotions both cooperate and compete to shape the personality and actions of Riley, a young girl grappling with the challenges of her family’s cross-country move. The premise allows for a host of creative plot devices, including the Train of Thought, an indifferently guarded subconscious (with Riley’s fear of clowns among those locked inside), a studio that churns out nightly dream productions and a deep, dark chasm in which memories are discarded forever. The movie’s casting is nearly perfect, with Amy Poehler’s leading turn as Joy being a prime example. And Pixar’s ability to deliver captivating animation is, as usual, on full display.

[Warning: spoilers ahead]

Still, it’s the very human process of emotional maturation that gives Inside Out real resonance and weight. In Riley’s young life, Joy has been (literally) her predominant driving emotion, a role that includes carefully relegating Sadness to nothing but the margins of her personality. However, in concert with the upheaval of leaving the place, friends, and activities that have played such prominent role in Riley’s life, Sadness becomes the catalyst for internal chaos. By tinting memories that had up to that point only been joyful, she inadvertently sets in motion events that leave both Joy and herself separated from Headquarters and key features of Riley’s personality crumbling into the chasm.

Dragging Sadness with her, Joy first tries to make her way back to headquarters to restore a happy status quo. Facing all kinds of challenges along the way (met in part with the sacrificial help of Bing Bong, Riley’s one-time imaginary friend), she only gradually realizes that Sadness, too, has an important role to play in Riley’s life. It’s only their combined work that helps Riley return from running away from her family, express her deep sorrow over moving, and find a deeper, more secure happiness than she had known before.

The notion that sadness is something that needs to be avoided, papered over, or otherwise banished is a stubbornly pervasive one in the broader American Christian culture. In this conception, sorrow is mostly seen as a failure of faith, a lack of trust in God’s provision and promises. The sooner it can be discarded, the better.

However, by exploring Sadness’s place in Riley’s life, and mingling her influence with Joy’s, Inside Out points to a larger, more nuanced understanding that arises from the Bible’s own storyline. Sometimes sorrow is in fact the proper response to our experience as fallen people in a fallen world. One only needs to read the Psalms, a book that models for us how to talk with God, or consider Jesus’ own life to see the truth of this. Moreover, as the cross precedes the empty tomb, the gospel itself reminds us that our greatest joy lies at the end of a path that descends through deep sorrow…and our experience of that joy will be all the more satisfying as a result.

Inside Out neither aims for nor provides a complete “anatomy of the soul,” one that takes into account sin, brokenness, transcendence and the like. But what it does do is shed a surprising amount of light on the right understanding of our emotional lives, an understanding that flows from the reality of our experience this side of heaven. If you haven’t seen it yet, my bet is that you’ll not only really enjoy it, but you’ll have something substantial to think and talk about after you do.

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