Inside Out, Right-Side Up

The Roots of Real Joy


Inside Out, Right-Side Up

Inside Out, the latest creation from Pixar, enters the mind of eleven-year-old Riley, and personifies her five dominant emotions: Joy, Sadness, Anger, Fear, and Disgust. The five characters in Riley’s head, led by Joy, man a control panel that guides her through life, forming memories, the strongest of which form islands of personality that define Riley (silliness, hockey, friendship, and family).

The movie entertains and inspires in fresh and thoughtful ways. It seeks to engage us all — young and old, children and parents, and everyone else — in a way that will change us. After watching, you likely will not witness (or unleash) a temper tantrum or tear-filled meltdown in the same way again. The writers and animators do an excellent job exposing and making us all feel the absurd, but real tensions inside the human heart.

A Joy to Believe In

The hallmark of Inside Out is the grounding of happiness. In a society that seeks joy in comfort, silliness, and diversion, Pixar presents a different picture of the full life. Being happy is not about eliminating or even minimizing emotions not named Joy. No one in history has ever succeeded with that approach. Inside Out refreshingly declares that the good life — at least the one that really happens on this planet — is not free from sadness or anger, but allows joy to live in a harmony with those other less comfortable emotions.

The film fearlessly enters the dark, detached mind of a preteen whose life has been disrupted by a cross-country move. The film’s brilliance is in embracing the brokenness we all face. We all experience it, and yet so few stories in television and at the theaters help us process and endure it. In Inside Out, life is hard, but not hopeless. Grief and sadness are meaningful, even valuable experiences.

Joy in comfort, in silliness, in sports can be truly happy for a time, but there are no roots, at least not strong ones. It’s fragile. One embarrassing moment in front of the class and it all comes crashing down. If life is about preserving that simple, child-like, playful happiness, then we’re all lost and helpless. Eventually — and sometimes very early on — life removes its kiddie gloves — the unexpected move, betrayal, divorce, sickness, failure, loss. Life will steal a child’s happiness at age seven or seventeen or thirty-seven, and if we don’t have a plan for joy after sadness comes, we’ll be left frustrated, confused, and bitter. The film displays the futility of shortsighted, over-protective happiness.

The story begins with Joy frantically — though relentlessly cheerfully — micromanaging the team of emotions, striving to keep everything and everyone calm, predictable, and happy. The simplicity of a child’s life lends itself to lots of simple and repeatable pleasure. By the end, though, Joy cherishes and cooperates with the others, seeing their inevitable and even critical roles in Riley’s life. Pixar has created categories to help children face depressing, scary, revolting, and infuriating realities of a fallen world without giving up hope for real happiness.

Riley’s Roots

Inside Out grounds joy — which in and of itself sets it apart from so many other movies — but still leaves it rootless. The joy is real, and even mature, but it’s not safe or reliable. It’s not made or even expected to last the stormy waves that will crash into our lives. When one island of personality falls — whether silliness or hockey or friendship — we’ll start building another.

Pixar beautifully illustrates the problem, but doesn’t present a satisfying solution. I’m not sure it can. Think about it: The savior in Inside Out is an imaginary elephant friend named Bing Bong.

Now, to be clear, I’m not expecting cartoon Jesus to show up just outside the chamber of abstract thought, riding in on Donkey from Shrek. But as a lover of Jesus, I’m always fascinated to watch where the world looks for hope and rescue. For Inside Out, it’s the fond, if silly, memories of an imaginary childhood friend or the consistent warmth of a mother or Riley’s superior ability in hockey. The heroes are adorable, but short-lived. The hope for children is in a steady stream of heroes — always something new in each season of life to encourage or comfort or inspire. As believers in Christ, we can do far better than Bing Bong.

Parents, Pixar has helped your kids understand themselves better. They’ll now be able to imagine Joy and Anger and Sadness — little yellow and red and blue action figures inside their brain — when those emotions begin to emerge and overwhelm them. But Pixar can only point us inside ourselves. Inside Out will not set us right-side up, with our eyes fixed on God. That doesn’t make it a bad or inadequate movie. The film is a fantastic chance for you to take your child’s heart and imagination deep inside themselves and then out and upward to a real, reliable, satisfying Savior.

Child-Like Joy

The message of Inside Out says that joy in this life can be real even when mixed with darker, harder memories and experiences. The film creatively and effectively protects us from thinking life is meant to be easy, fun, and care-free. True joy, the kind that survives suffering and endures pain, is not cheap or easy. It’s laced — woven through and through — with sadness. So it is with Christ in an even more profound way. We are “sorrowful, yet always rejoicing” (2 Corinthians 6:10), and our joy is all the deeper and more enduring because of the grief.

The hope for Christians, though, is that there is even better news than real-life, down-to-earth, grounded-with-grief joy in this world. The joy Riley experienced before her family’s move — a child-like, uninhibited, uncontaminated happiness — is not so far off from the hope of heaven. The full and forever happiness we will have with God in his presence will not be ruined by sadness or distress or disgust, but enriched by them. One day, God will wipe away every tear (Revelation 21:4) — no fear, no sadness — and amazingly we will be eternally better for having cried.

Our joy, then and there, will be truly free, fearless, and full — childlike, but untouchable.


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Marshall Segal (@MarshallSegal) is a writer and managing editor at desiringGod.org. He’s the author of Not Yet Married: The Pursuit of Joy in Singleness & Dating (2017). He graduated from Bethlehem College & Seminary. He and his wife Faye live in Minneapolis.