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Inside Out

Latest in the Pixar pantheon of kid’s movies made for adults, Inside Out takes a bold step into the world of the inner life, creating a mythical headquarters inside the head of Riley, a hockey playing girl from Minnesota. At the controls of Riley’s mind are five emotions—Joy, Anger, Fear, Disgust, and Sadness with Joy at the helm, voiced by Amy Pohler. After deftly laying out a rather complicated system by which Riley does what she does and the emotions’ involvement with her decisions, the movie essentially begins when at the age of eleven, Riley moves from Minneapolis to San Francisco. This major crisis in Riley’s life endangers the existence of the five “islands” fueled in her head by core memories created by her experiences and managed by the five emotions. The islands are representative of Riley’s personality at a subconscious level and are responsible for her behavior; they are the touchstones of her decision making and are all healthy and functioning well up to this point in her life. The five islands, “Goofball”, “Friendship”, “Hockey”, “Honesty” and “Family”, float above the Abyss of a dark wasteland called the memory dump and are connected tenuously to headquarters by long rods. During the crisis of the movie, the islands become disconnected from headquarters, begin to crumble and die, as their corresponding core memories are destroyed.

The move to San Francisco is a disaster as Riley’s new home is dilapidated and unwelcoming, her father loses his job and of course she is confronted with a new school devoid of all her friends in Minnesota. The movie focuses on Joy and Sadness, thrown together by circumstances and ejected from headquarters after a struggle for control of some of Riley’s memories, going on a journey through Long-Term Memory, some of the islands, the Abyss, and eventually getting back to headquarters. All the while Riley encounters disappointment and heartache one after another until she decides to run away (at Anger’s prompting). Of course this is a Pixar movie, so Riley is eventually reconciled to her parents, confesses her lack of honesty, makes new friends, redevelops her ability to goof around and even gets back her love for hockey. Along the way, she learns a lot of lessons, and the viewer is given much to consider.

So much of this movie is wise. There are many funny portrayals of anger, disgust, and fear, as well as of joy and sadness (the two chief characters), and a clear premise of the film is that any of these emotions by itself creates a shallow—or worse, dangerous—personality that is bound for trouble. The emotions are put in a very high place in the film, but not one that allows for pedestals.

The chief lesson, that as one matures, one realizes that most experiences (and memories!) are tinged with both joy and sadness, is a good lesson for a fallen world, and rightly sees humankind as both noble and fallen. Would that the movie only taught what it explicitly says, but, unfortunately the subtext of this film is not so encouraging.

Religion of any kind plays no part in Inside Out, a profoundly disappointing aspect of the film since it seems to want to present us with a comprehensive view of how life is lived by human beings. As often in “good” secular film, the family is the closest thing to God, so the Family island is the one that is last to be almost destroyed and is clearly the most important to be restored. The entire metaphor of emotions governing a “headquarters” in the human psyche is sadly materialistic to the core, and the lack of any kind of reference to some sort of higher governing, or even helping, agency misses the point of actual human experience where we are all governed by the gods or God we serve. One could argue that the islands were of Riley’s choosing and serve as her “gods” but since there is no reference to god or the transcendent in the movie, that is simply too clever by half. The movie avoids the transcendent in every way.

Even worse, the only Christ figure in the film is a childhood imaginary friend named Bing-Bong, who gives up his chance of escape from the Abyss of the memory dump by choosing to jump from his rocket ship in order to save Joy. Too many Freudians already irrationally believe in the childishness of faith. They don’t need Pixar to help them along that road. Bing-Bong, Santa Claus, Jesus Christ—all for childhood, right?

Additionally, reason comes in for really bad treatment. At one point on their journey, for example, Sadness, Joy and Bing-Bong are trapped in the Center of Abstract Thought, which turns anything real into an abstraction, capturing it forever. They escape this horror just in time. Plato would be mortified. I cannot remember the exact nature of the joke, but there is also a reference to ideas being all jumbled together while the emotions are riding the Train of Thought. Ah, well, perhaps there is some truth there…

Much of my disappointment with Inside Out stems from the fact that its chief creator and director is Pete Docter, who has declared his Christian faith many times (cf. e.g. this interview). He has said

I don’t think people in any way, shape, or form like to be lectured to. When people go to a movie, they want to see some sort of experience of themselves on the screen. They don’t come to be taught. So in that sense, and in terms of any sort of beliefs, I don’t want to feel as though I’m ever lecturing or putting an agenda forth. (“What’s up Doc(ter)?” Christianity Today, May 26, 2009)

What he doesn’t seem to realize is that every film “lectures” in one way or another, and even further, every film is a religious film, whether it wants to be or not. Particularly, film that deals with the mind, the emotions, character formation and the capacity for decision making in the human being simply shouts one view or another about the existence of God, the nature of man, the means of salvation and a host of other teachings that force one to religious conclusions. The religion in a film doesn’t have to be heavy or overly direct, but in Inside Out, Docter didn’t give us anything that even hints at the existence of the transcendent. That’s a pity because the film has many, albeit humanistic, insights.

Drew Trotter

August 5, 2015

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