Inside Out and a theology of Sadness

Josh Larsen

The outstanding new Pixar film Inside Out gives walking, talking personalities to the various emotions inside the mind of an 11-year-old girl named Riley. My favorite moment takes place about midway through the movie and involves Joy, a Tinker Bell-like sprite voiced by Amy Poehler; Sadness, a blue bespectacled blob voiced by Phyllis Smith; and Bing Bong, Riley’s imaginary friend, who has the conveniently clownish voice of Richard Kind.

Despondent over losing his precious rocket/wagon (remember, this is an imaginary friend), Bing Bong slumps to the ground and begins to whimper. Joy – who is intent on squashing out any hint of unhappiness – aggressively urges him to cheer up. But Sadness, whose dialogue is delivered by Smith in an array of elongated whimpers, settles in next to Bing Bong and consoles him simply by allowing him to cry. (By the way, Bing Bong looks something like an elephant, is made largely of cotton candy and cries tears of candy.)

As most reviews have noted, Inside Out is about learning to reconcile joy and sadness, whether you’re a tween forced to move away from friends, as Riley is, or a parent who can no longer protect your child from life’s hardships. It’s a rich subject – one mined with Pixar’s usual combination of wit, intelligence and emotional resonance – and also one that echoes a Christian understanding of the human experience. Christianity, after all, is an expression of joy in response to - not in denial of - deep sadness.

Writing earlier on TC about The Muppets and “holy nonsense,” I referenced this Frederick Buechner quote on joy, from The Hungering Dark: "Joy is a mystery because it can happen anywhere, anytime, even under the most unpromising circumstances, even in the midst of suffering, with tears in its eyes.”

Christianity is an expression of joy in response to - not in denial of - deep sadness.

This applies to Inside Out as well, considering its final image is precisely one of joy with tears in its eyes. Yet I think another Buechner book helps us place sadness within a larger theological context. Telling the Truth: The Gospel as Tragedy, Comedy and Fairy Tale, as its subtitle suggests, argues that we can’t fully understand our place in God’s story unless we’ve experienced sadness of some sort. It isn’t until we recognize the deep sorrow of this world - the Fall, and our perpetuation of its effects - that we can fully appreciate the almost laughable generosity of Christ’s redemptive act. And only then will we know true joy, the fairy-tale ending that is God’s restoration of His creation.

C.S. Lewis famously wrote of being Surprised by Joy; in that book, he too speaks of joy in eschatological terms, describing it as “a desire for something longer ago or further away or still 'about to be.’” In Inside Out, we’re surprised by Sadness. While we might expect her to be a villain, instead she’s a crucial component to Riley’s emotional well-being.

It isn’t just a clever gag, then, that Bing Bong’s tears take the form of something sweet. The overall arc of Inside Out begins with naïve happiness, encompasses an acknowledgement of sorrow and settles on a tearful sort of joy. Even as they make you laugh, those candy tears have a sacramental quality reflective of this spiritual journey. They’re images of a bitterness that has been re-formed.

Topics: Movies, Culture At Large, Arts & Leisure, Theology & The Church, Theology, Home & Family, Parenting