This weekend I went to see “Inside Out,” Pixar’s new animated movie about the five emotions (Joy, Sadness, Anger, Disgust, and Fear) that live inside an eleven-year-old girl named Riley. I’d been reduced to a sobbing, sopping mess during the first five minutes of “Up,” which I hadn’t expected to be a tear-jerker, so I arrived at “Inside Out” with a packet of tissues, fully prepared to weep. And although I did sniffle and get misty-eyed during several scenes, what surprised me about “Inside Out” was how I reacted to the Riley’s predominant emotion, “Joy.”
Not long into the movie, I grew annoyed with Joy, voiced by an ever-enthusiastic Amy Poehler. There is a lot to love about Joy: she’s bright and bright-eyed, friendly and inquisitive, and almost pathologically positive. Poehler is a graduate of Boston College, and when I taught at BC, I was almost alarmed at how upbeat and earnest the students there were. When I taught at BC, I found it disconcerting that my students weren’t nearly as sarcastic and smart-assed as I am, so going into “Inside Out,” I was prepared to prefer the wry irony of Mindy Kaling’s Disgust and the unbridled rage of Lewis Black’s Anger. Disgust and Anger I can understand, but Joy is elusive.
Joy is, well, a joy to be with when things are going well, as they largely do for the first ten years of Riley’s life, when she is an energetic, cherished child living in Minnesota. But when Riley’s family relocates to San Francisco, Joy’s perpetual perkiness seems increasingly irrelevant. It’s not that Riley can’t be happy in San Francisco: Joy is still Joy, and the basic emotional makeup of Riley’s psyche remains unchanged. It’s more a matter of balance. In order to maintain control over Riley’s outlook, Joy kicks her hyperactive happiness into overdrive, banishing Sadness (voiced by Phyllis Smith) to a library of user manuals where she is instructed to read up on mental maintenance like a child sentenced to sit in a corner.
But as anyone acquainted with their own blue moods would know, Sadness cannot be contained, bursting forth spontaneously and threatening to (literally) color Riley’s childhood memories. Isn’t that exactly how it goes? When you’re blue, it feels like everything you do, ever have done, and ever will do will be blue, too. When you’re feeling down, there is nothing more maddening than Joy with her upbeat insistence to look on the bright side.
But despite Joy’s well-intentioned pep talks, ultimately it is Sadness–a droopy blue blob in owlish spectacles and a dowdy turtleneck–who is the compassionate one, able to listen when a friend (imaginary or otherwise) has a moment of despair. Whereas Joy works herself into a frenzy trying to keep Riley happy, Sadness simply reflects reality without judgement: sometimes, things make us sad. Joy is lighthearted and perpetually young, but Sadness is weighted with a wisdom beyond her years. Whereas Joy is the queen of unsolicited advice, Sadness simply sits alongside, a blue blob whose very shape suggests support.
I find it telling that when we see inside Riley’s mother’s mind, her panel of emotions is led not by Joy but by Sadness. (The emotions in Riley’s father’s head, on the other hand, answer to Anger when they aren’t all daydreaming about hockey games.) Although a child’s formative years might (we hope) be predominantly happy ones, a mother’s heart is essentially sorrowful, ever attuned to the suffering of her own or other’s children. Whereas Riley’s emotions are widely and radically different, the emotions in Riley’s mother’s head have settled into a stable similarity, working together rather than at cross purposes.
This is, ultimately, what Riley to must learn at the edge of adulthood. Ultimately Sadness should never be banished; instead, she is intended to work hand-in-hand with Joy.