(Warning - the following contains SPOILERS for Disney/Pixar's Inside Out. If you haven't yet seen the movie, then proceed with caution - or head out and see it now. Don't worry, we'll wait...)
There are a whole lot of ways in which Disney/Pixar's latest cinematic effort, Inside Out, is ridiculously lovable. The majority of those, however, are exactly what you expect to see, considering the near un-interrupted run of genius they've been on for the past two decades. Stunning visuals? Check. Well-rounded, fully-realized characters? Check. A John Ratzenberger cameo? Check, check and check.
There are, however, a couple of ways in which the film manages to do something so special that it deserves mentioning even beyond the usual 'Pixar is awesome' generalizations. For one thing, the film has a whole lot to say about how we can make ourselves happier in life, but it also has something pretty darned important to tell us about one of the most important parts of anyone's life: growing up.
There's Something Super Important Pixar Is Trying to Tell Us About Growing Up - No Matter How Old We Are
Now, on the surface of Inside Out, that lesson might seem strikingly clear - and completely unexpected from as iconic a producer of all-ages-friendly animation as Pixar.
'We Have to Put Away Our Childish Things'
After all, it's not until Riley (the film's main human lead/setting) loses her memory of her childhood friend Bing-Bong, and learns to embrace the necessity of sadness like an adult, that she truly finds balance.
So, presumably, the movie is telling us that to become functioning adults, we have to leave behind that sense of play, and of the ridiculous, in order to do so.
Except, of Course, It Isn't (and We Don't)...
Y'see, that may well be one possible interpretation of the movie's message, but it's one that doesn't fit too well with a whole lot else that's going on in there.
After all, the last thing Bing-Bong tells Joy, as he sacrifices himself?
"Take her to the moon for me."
Now, in one respect, that's a sweet - and heartbreaking - reference back to Bing-Bong's plans to fly Riley to the moon in her own imagination. In another sense, though, it's also a fairly obvious metaphor for Bing-Bong - a.k.a. Riley's free-wheeling and limitless youthful imagination - is passing the responsibility for her happiness onto something a little more complicated (yet realistic): Joy.
It's No Longer Enough to Simply Imagine Happiness
That, sadly, is one of the terrible truths of growing up. Where, when we were kids, we could quite literally 'make our own fun,' simply imagining another world, or a set of playmates, there comes a time in our lives where we start to depend on the real world around us, and its inhabitants, to provide the means for us to be happy.
That, after all, is why Riley's move away from her friends, and her old pattern of life, is so traumatic. She's old enough that she depends on them for support, and is no longer able to 'make her own fun,' but hasn't yet learned to deal with the moments when that support is taken away.
Which Is Where the Real Message of the Movie Kicks in
Y'see, that whole process of isolation and grief that Riley goes through is mirrored within her mind - the primary setting of Inside Out - by Joy and Sadness' struggle to return to 'Headquarters.' While on the outside, their absence is shown to have terrible consequences for Riley's state of mind, to the point of her beginning to feel nothing at all, on the inside, the pair learn something incredibly important: Joy and Sadness are both essential parts of being happy.
The thing is, though, they have to work together - and to understand one another - in order for that to work. During Riley's childhood, after all, it was absolutely fine for Joy to push Sadness out of the way, but as the movie shows, that soon isn't enough. Without both emotions, Riley isn't actually truly happy - she's just enjoying things.
That, then, is the movie's real lesson:
To Become an Adult, We Have to Find a Balance Between the Unconstrained Joy of Childhood, and Bleak, Self-Limiting Sadness
Specifically, we're forced to give up the easy, consequence-less joy of youth, instead accepting that sadness can exist within every joyful moment. As Joy and Sadness realize in the movie, they both play a part in the key moments in Riley's life - but in so doing, enrich them.
Riley's memory of being hugged by her mom and dad on a tree branch, one which is a huge part of what makes her 'her,' is just as much defined by the sadness of the loss that prompted it, as it is by the joyful celebration with her team-mates that accompanies it. It's the bitter-sweet nature of the moment that makes it meaningful, and that makes her family's unbending love truly matter.
We DON'T Have to Put Away Our Childish Things
After all, Riley's dad is still fully capable of drifting off into memories of sports games, much as her mom is of imagining past moments through rose-colored glasses:
Similarly, it's not as though Riley's mind incorporated 'Goofball Island' into her key personality traits on a whim - that's a part of who she is that she got straight from her 'goofball' parents, who've still retained a 'childish' side to their natures, despite the responsibilities of growing up.
However, as the film seems to suggest:
We Have to Combine Those 'Childish Things' with Responsibilities and Balance
Take a look in her mom's head, for instance. Her Sadness isn't overly sad. Her Joy isn't overly joyful. Her Anger is noticeably restrained.
Even Riley's dad's emotions - which are, in large part, pretty terrible at their jobs - are far more consistent and balanced out with one another than those we see in Riley's head at the start of the movie.
By the film's conclusion, Riley's emotions have developed the ability to share responsibility for her well-being with one another, and to embrace the fact that they're all integral parts of her emotional well-being.
Or, in other words, she grows up.
The thing is, though:
There's a Lesson in There for All of Us
Y'see, though the modern world is filled with a seemingly never-ending array of choices when it comes to new and exciting ways of spending our free time, there's also a constant push for us to - as has been referenced repeatedly above - 'put away our childish things.'
After all, anyone who's ever told a friend about their love of Disney, or comic-books, or pretty much anything that isn't accountancy, will almost certainly have experienced the awkward moment of being asked 'aren't you a little old for that?', or 'isn't that for kids?'
Which, of course, they are - but they're also for adults. As Inside Out seems to be reminding us, what makes us happy as a kid can still make us happy as an adult - and perhaps is much needed to - but is only effective at doing so when combined with an understanding of the emotional challenges and compromises of adult life.
Or, in other words:
We Have to 'Grow Up,' But Still Keep Our Inner Child Alive
After all, we still have to take ourselves to that moon...