Theme: New Creation
Pixar, the award winning animation studios is famous for creating movies which are: imaginative, heart-warming, and profound. For their fifteenth film, Director Pete Docter has delved into the mind of an eleven year old girl to explore the transition from childhood to adolescence . . . from the Inside Out. The psychology of the film will fascinate adults and be over the heads of young children; but Inside Out is far more than a study of the human psyche. The movie’s profundity lies with the human heart, the source from which all the springs of life flow (Proverbs 4:23).
There are five emotions chosen by the creators of Inside Out to be the “characters” which inhabit the inside of eleven year old Riley Andersen. Joy is the first and primary emotion to run Riley’s control panel. She is designed to look like a star which makes her more “heavenly” in origin. Peter Kreeft the philosopher writes, “Joy comes not from the world, through the body (like pleasure) or from ourselves, through the soul (like happiness) but from God, through the spirit, it ‘smells of divinity . . . it is a heavenly element falling into an earthly compound”. 1
The other four emotions are more “earthy” and are uniquely designed as well. Sadness is a tear drop (water), anger is a fire brick (clay), disgust is broccoli (vegetable), and fear is a nerve (biological). Together they constitute the dust and divinity of Riley, a human being created in the image of God.
There are three areas of activity which occupy the inside of Riley. These spheres are just as uniquely designed as the emotions. Headquarters is the control room, with its panel operated by the five emotions and its power source, housing the core memories. It is celestial in nature, high and exalted, separated from the other spheres which lie beneath it.
The more “earthy” sphere contains the Islands of Personality, the Long Term Memory Banks, the Land of Imagination, The Dream Factory and a subterranean vault know as the Sub-Conscience.
Finally the third sphere is a black abyss known only as the Memory Dump. The things which are dying and passing away such as the fading memories and the destroyed islands of personality go into this pit of utter darkness to be forgotten.
The creators of Inside Out have used a family move from Minnesota to San Francisco as a metaphor for growing up. Riley’s transition from one place to another tells the story of her transition from childhood to adolescence. There is a deeper level to the move metaphor however; for growing up becomes a metaphor for leaving one world (old creation) and journeying to another world (new creation). This is a pilgrimage of the heart, often called The Hero’s Journey, and it always requires the hero to pass through death and be resurrected to a new life. 2
The story begins in the ordinary world where Joy is in control of the other emotions and sees they are useful, at times, for protecting Riley. There is only one emotion she does not understand and that is Sadness, her polar opposite.
The triggering event which propels two emotions out of their ordinary world into the special world is the move to San Francisco. This shakes the control room, for sadness over the move makes Sadness assert herself over the control panel and create a core memory unlike any other. In a struggle to regain control,both Joy and Sadness are sucked out of the celestial tower and end up down in Riley’s memory banks.
The long journey to get back to the control tower begins with a descent as all Hero Journeys do. Joy and Sadness cross the threshold into Riley’s memory banks and find a mentor in Bing Bong, her childhood imaginary friend. Together the three experience trial and tribulations as they go through Imagination Land, the Dream Factory, ride the Train of Thought and descend into the Sub-Conscience. The story reaches its climatic low point when the crash of a personality island causes Joy and Bing Bong to fall into the abyss of the Memory Dump.
Joy finds herself in a place of darkness and death, the land of the forgotten with no way out. She sits down and picks up the fading memories and begins to weep over them, experiencing sadness for the first time. She literally dies to her old self, Joy, and becomes Sadness; and as she does she begins to see how Sadness has always worked to bring Joy back to Riley.
Overcome with love for Riley and recognizing the importance now of both she and Sadness getting back to the control room, Joy is inspired with a new idea for getting out of the Memory Dump . . . using Bing Bong’s rocket wagon.
As Joy and Bing Bong sing his friendship song, the rainbow boosters fire up and almost lift the wagon out of the abyss. Twice they fail and crash but on the third try, Bing Bong assures her they will make it. Realizing his weight makes the difference, Bing Bong jumps out sacrificing himself so Joy can save Riley and “take her to the moon”. The truest friend lays his life down for those he loves.
Back in Headquarters Joy turns the control panel over to Sadness just in the nick of time. Using her special touch she is able to remove Anger’s locked-in idea to run away and brings Riley to a place of sorrow and repentance, thus restoring her to her parents. Nestled in her parents’ loving arms Riley finds her true home . . . the place of knowing she is loved.
The Hero’s Journey always ends with the resurrected hero returning to the ordinary world having been transformed after passing through his ordeal and death in the special world. Something had to die in order for the hero to become a new creation.
Inside Out ends with Riley being reconciled with her parents and her new life on the outside because the “dust and divinity” in her was reconciled on the inside. Sacrificial love has triumphed and a whole new Riley has been born.
1. Heaven: The Heart’s Deepest Longing page 133, by Peter Kreeft
2. For more on The Hero’s Journey see The Writer’s Journey by Christopher Vogler. Words in bold type are stages of The Hero’s Journey.