Yes, I am recommending that during this solemn season of Lent, you should watch a Pixar movie whose main character is literally the personification of Joy. That probably sounds a little backwards. Stick with me.
Inside Out is an animated family movie that focuses on the inner life of an eleven year old girl, Riley. We see her mind/soul/heart laid out, with her memories neatly stored in shining orbs, including special ‘core’ memories that have shaped different parts of her personality, represented by ‘islands’ like Friendship and Family, Goofball and Honesty. There’s a movie studio where her dreams are produced (a rainbow unicorn is the star). There’s even her imaginary friend, a pink elephant named Bing-Bong.
Mostly, though, we see Riley’s emotions. Joy (voiced by Amy Poehler) has things under control for the most part, but she has to deal with Anger (Lewis Black), Disgust (Mindy Kaling), and Fear (Bill Hader). Those guys can be obnoxious, but it’s clear that they play a role—they take charge and help Riley out when she needs it.
But then there’s Sadness (voiced by Phyllis Smith of The Office). No one really knows what she’s supposed to do. Why would they ever want Riley to feel sad? Any time Sadness touches the controls, she just seems to make things worse. Joy spends most of her time trying to push Sadness to the background where she can’t mess things up.
The movie is cute and clever, beautiful and heart-warming, but the genius of this film is the exploration of this essential question: What is the purpose of Sadness? That’s also why this movie is such a perfect fit for Lent.
We wish that our lives could just be uninterrupted Joy. We are really comfortable with that feeling—we’d never wish it away. But, uncomfortable though it might be, Sadness has a role to play as well. Sadness reminds us of what we love the most. Sadness awakens (painfully) the deepest longings of our hearts. We can try to shut out Sadness all we want, but she will always be there.
This movie doesn’t have any overtly Christian symbolism. There’s no character you can point to and say, “That’s Jesus!” But it tells a truth about what it means to be human. And it tells the truth about what it means to love like a family.
The shortest verse in the Bible is John 11:35—“Jesus wept.” Jesus is weeping at the tomb of his friend, Lazarus. He feels the pain and sorrow of the loss right alongside Lazarus’s sisters. And then he does the impossible: he raises the dead.
Jesus came to bring us great joy, but he also came to sit with us in our sadness. And we desperately need both those things.