Reflections from the Outside In: A Solo Trip To See Our Newest Animated Classic, ‘Inside Out’

After a few failed attempts, by last night I’d had enough. “Today”, I thought, “I am determined. Nothing is going to stop me from seeing Pixar’s ‘Inside Out’ at 8.” I even bought a company-subsidized ticket online in the afternoon. Well, as I was eating my Indian take-out food and drinking my protein shake, I texted my friend to inform her of our mandatory outing. As it turned out, she had scored a free ticket to see Bastille in concert, and thus wouldn’t be able to take me up on my last minute invitation. I checked my phone. 7:45. I walked myself to the theater amidst dozens of young men just like me, all of whom were going with their buddies to see Jurassic World. As I stood in line and redeemed my voucher, uttering in a barely audible, deep tone “One for ‘Inside Out’”, I felt a little uncomfortable. What would my fellow audience members think?

After deciding to stick it out, I went upstairs, was directed to Theater 8, and followed an adorable little blonde family in the door. I plopped myself down in the back middle of the theater and pulled out my work notebook. After all, I reasoned, I might as well look as if I’m writing about the movie if I’m there alone. I decided that I was a man on assignment, not a 20 year old stuck with pre-pubescent movie taste.  At about 8:20, after noticing streams of surprisingly mature looking young adults enter the theater, I began to suspect that something was amiss. At 8:25 I decided that, even for New York, 25 minutes was a bit ridiculous for preview length. I checked my ticket again. Inside Out, 8:00, Theater 9.

I raced down the stairs and across the hall into the actual theater. I sprinted up the steps 3 at a time, settling myself into a chair just as our protagonist, Joy, was narrating the birth of Riley, the girl within whom she lives. I was so excited that I had missed nothing of note, I forgot to be embarrassed about being a 20 year old alone at a Pixar movie. Instead, what I felt for much of the next 95 minutes was what Amy Poehler’s Tinkerbell-esque emotion wants for Riley at the beginning of the film: uninhibited, unrelenting joy.

By now you’ve surely heard enough about the movie to know the conceit. Inside Riley’s brain-located control center sit five personified emotions: Joy, Disgust, Anger, Fear, and Sadness. Riley is as happy as a little pre-teen can be, thanks to the confident leadership of Joy. All five emotions have a place, even if the role of Sadness is to stay out the way. As Joy puts it, “Sadness… well, I don’t know what she does.” However, a move to San Francisco from homey Minnesota throws a kink in the bliss, and the team is forced to deal with a whole new set of challenges. Joy and Sadness, after a bit of mistimed curiosity from the latter, are thrown from Headquarters into the deep maze of Long Term Memory and must work together to find their way home before Anger, Fear, and Disgust accidentally screw Riley up

As has been well documented, the movie works extraordinarily well. Poehler, along with an all star cast of comedians1 manages to oscillate the film between funny bits for all ages (my personal favorites being The Imaginary Boyfriend machine and the Hollywood-esque Dream Production Studio), and poignant moments that force you to ruminate on your own emotional make-up. It asks you to, quite literally, look at yourself from the “Inside Out”.

I’m not going to ruin the movie, but I will ruin the lesson it teaches.  Throughout the adventure, Joy tries to cheer everyone up with jokes, tickling, and basically anything that one can do to incite a smile. What she gradually begins to learn, as Sadness’s bookish intuition and realist disposition begin to prove right more and more often, is that you can’t always just put on a happy face. It requires all emotions to truly live. This is exemplified by a scene about halfway through the movie when their tour guide through Imaginationland (a character you’ll have to watch the movie to discover) begins to cry, stalling their quest. Only when Sadness listens to his problems does he begin to feel better – it is her understanding of his emotion that allows them to move forward. “I’m sorry they… took something you loved”, she says. Like in life, empathy moves us more effectively than suppression.

While Inside Out markets itself as a story about Joy, it’s really a story about Sadness. What we come to understand throughout the course of Peter Docter’s wonderful story is that life without Sadness isn’t really life. We don’t want Joy to leave Sadness behind, not out of guilt and sympathy, but out of necessity. The lack of one single emotion undermines the effect of another.  Without Fear, we can’t understand Bravery. Without Disgust, Admiration doesn’t really exist. Without Anger, Love loses its meaning. And without Sadness, of course, we fail to appreciate Joy.

Inside Out reminds us that our life and emotional makeup, much like our cocktails and our movies, must be made equal parts bitter and sweet. In romantic comedies, the happy ending is only so happy because we had a seemingly irreparable conflict somewhere between 60 and 90 minutes in. In cocktails, alcohol’s bitter taste is counterbalanced with mixers (and maybe alcohol’s intoxicating effect). In life, however, the balance isn’t so formulaic. We may be tempted at times to suppress our Fear, our Anger, our Sadness. But then life has no kick. Relationships without complication are boring, just as happiness without pain is empty. Attempting to refute that is simply a denial of life’s frustrating duality. It takes a moment of clarity to realize that we don’t need to feel Joy all the time. It takes strength and a lot of soul searching to realize only when we look Inside Out, and embrace the flawed, complicated nature of our internal headquarters do we get the happy ending we so deeply desire. Or, you know, it just takes Pixar.

1. Lewis Black as Anger; Mindy Kaling as Disgust; Bill Hader as Fear; and, in a phenomenal vocal performance, “The Office’s” Phyllis Smith as Sadness

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