As many of us learned first-hand during the lockdown months, sadness is one of the most important emotions there is, because it protects us from the unnatural atomisation that modern life subjects us too. We cannot function as lone units, and we should not try – something that Pixar’s remarkable Inside Out deals with compellingly.
Back in 2015, as I fumbled for the right change in the cinema foyer, preparing to see Pixar’s latest cinematic extravaganza, whatever incompetent forces dwell within my left frontal lobe dropped a bit of a clanger. Whoever was working the controls probably needed putting on garden leave, as I dozily ordered two tickets to “Inside Me”, much to the wilting embarrassment of the Vue cashier. The best review that I can give of Inside Out, is that it was interminably worth that momentary humiliation.
An innovative, intelligent and accessible piece of story-telling, Inside Out’s message sets it apart as a very different kind of family film. The fact is it is not all about chasing your dreams, or believing in yourself, or even becoming popular and making friends. This is about telling us, adults as much as children, that sometimes it’s OK to be sad.
That might not sound like much, but in a world of ever-increasing pressure, where we are eternally competing with a million other people for an ever-shrinking patch of economic security, embracing your sadness is almost a revolutionary act. We’re expected to mask our feelings with a perpetual masquerade of joy above all else, because we are taught this toxic trudge of an existence is somehow natural – and that if we don’t fit into capitalism’s great faceless cogs then we are the ones who are dysfunctional. So even amid a global pandemic, while facing constant threats to our health and financial security, constricting our every movement and relationship, we are expected to be unconditionally “OK”, and sadness is often confused with weakness.
The brilliance of Inside Out is that beneath the joyous, colourful outer shell of a textbook Pixar, is that it reminds us the importance of a healthy emotional range. We start the film identifying with one emotion amongst the madness inside a small girl’s head. That emotion is Joy. She moderates the other constituent emotions who operate Riley, the young girl who is in the midst of moving house, a potentially traumatic experience for even the happiest child, keeping her on the level even when leaving old friends and cherished memories behind, and Joy keeps her making new, predominantly happy memories. All the emotions seemingly have a purpose, except Sadness. Sadness is, in the beginning, utterly useless, to the point of annoyance. She makes the move harder every step of the way when behind the controls initially, and when things escalate, and she and Joy find themselves on the edge of a giant pit where all the defunct memories get dumped, we find ourselves longing for an “accident” where Sadness is punted into the darkness to join them.
But during the move, in amongst all the pretence that Riley is “OK” with her uprooting, and her parents neglect due to their work commitments, the girl’s internal psyche begins to crumble – and without Sadness, she is completely unable to signal for help. She is soon on the brink of a total breakdown, and contemplating running away from home. At this point, having sided with Joy’s continuous attempts to stifle the seemingly incompetent Sadness every step of the way, we realise her importance. A façade of normality in a situation where everything isn’t OK is far more destructive than admitting something is wrong. Without going into further detail regarding the plot, Inside Out offers up a beautiful case for why it’s OK for us to vent our frustrations. Sadness isn’t a defect to be concealed, it is an important impulse that helps us signal those around us for help; and without that ability, creating new happy memories becomes impossible. That’s a lesson that we could all do well to learn, young or old.
Sadness is an instinct that allows us to collectively cope the continuous trauma living under 21st capitalism subjects our psyches to. If we are to improve on that, and even transform our lives as a whole for the better, then the first step is admitting something is wrong, that we are not “OK”. The first step is admitting as much.