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inside outPixar certainly has a winning formula. The movie studio seems to have found that little spot behind the collective ear that we like to have scratched. Its first 2015 release, Inside Out, follows the same inimitable story-telling recipe it served up to great applause with films such as Up, WALL-E, and Ratatouille. Pixar films are captivating—artfully done—without losing the story in the process. And let’s give the studio credit for taking the high road, leaving sexual innuendo and scatological humor to its competitors.

But Inside Out is something more; it’s a bit of a revelation. You see, that’s precisely what the story is supposed to provide—insight into the mental workings of a prepubescent girl named Riley. But by showing us that, Pixar gives us more than a peek inside the mind of an eleven-year-old; it also reveals what it thinks of you and me—the viewing public. Pixar has given us its doctrine of man.

Inside Out from the Outside 

On the surface, Riley’s story is pretty straightforward. She is an only child, and at the beginning of the story she lives in Minnesota with her mother and father. She loves her parents, her friends, and hockey. But her idyll comes to an end when her father enters a partnership to establish a business in San Francisco. Riley is then plopped down into a comfortless world: Her friends are now a thousand miles away; her father is preoccupied with the demands of his new job, and their new house is a dilapidated walkup located on a narrow and cheerless back street. And to make matters worse, the moving van containing all of her favorite things has somehow been misrouted to Texas and will be delayed for a week. Riley is forced to sleep on the floor in a dirty attic room. After breaking down in tears on her first day of school, she decides to run away to Minnesota. She steals her mother’s credit card and sneaks off to the bus station. After the bus pulls out of the station, Riley comes to her senses and gets off the bus just before it pulls onto the highway going out of town. She goes home and is received with gladness by her worried parents. There is a group hug and the story ends happily.

But all of that is just the occasion for the real story. That drama unfolds inside Riley’s head.

Inside Out from the Inside

When we enter Riley’s mind, we step into a high-tech amusement park crossed with a video library. Everything is coordinated from a control room (the actual name for it in the film). This room resembles the bridge of the starship Enterprise. It has a large control panel and even a wall-sized video monitor.

The video library is for Riley’s memories. Her experiences are recorded on what appear to be crystal balls—resembling the one from the castle of the Wicked Witch in The Wizard of Oz. These are generated in the tens of thousands and must be sorted out in order of importance. The most important become the “core memories” that constitute Riley’s personality. These get stored in a special compartment and, through an unexplained process, they generate the various “theme islands” of Riley’s amusement-park mind. These include: Family-Island, Honesty-Island, Friendship-Island, Hockey-Island, and Goofball-Island. Less important memories go to a vast library known as Long-Term Memory. Since even its capacious shelves are finite, they must be cleared out periodically to make room for new memories. When this happens, the old memories are thrown into a bleak valley known as Memory Dump, where they disintegrate into nothing.

There is more to the theme park than this; there are also back lots, infrastructure, and personnel to keep it all running. And everything connects via a rail line known as The Train of Thought. It’s all very cleverly and artfully rendered, and populated by sundry creatures that personify Riley’s fantasies or fears. When it comes to fantasies, there is her old imaginary friend Bing-Bong, and a one-dimensional, pop-culture-generated, imaginary boyfriend whose vocabulary is limited to the phrase, “I would die for Riley!” When it comes to fears, there is a giant birthday clown that lives as a nightmare. All these characters play important roles in saving Riley from herself as the story is told.

But for all its color and charm, a little reflection can’t help but reveal that Riley’s mind is entirely artificial. Nothing truly living actually resides there—nary a tree, nor a blade of grass, not even a dog.

What animates Riley, and what is clearly the most important part of her, is her emotions. There are five, each characterized by a corresponding color. There’s Anger, he’s red; Sadness, naturally she’s blue; Disgust, she’s green; Fear, he’s purple (for some unexplained reason); and Joy, Riley’s chief emotion, she’s a radiant golden-yellow. It’s worth noting that the emotions are gendered, and that in Riley’s case there is a mix: three female and two male. Nothing is made of this. But it is also worth noting that when we are given brief glimpses into the minds of her parents, we discover that all the emotions in her mother’s mind are female and all the emotions in her father’s are male. (We also see that the chief emotions in her parents differ from Riley’s. For her mother it is Sadness, and for her father it is Anger.)

Gendered emotions aside, it is what is left out of all this that troubles me. There is nothing in Riley that could be said to personify moral judgment. Riley doesn’t have a conscience.

To the classical way of thinking, this makes Riley a slave. She is entirely subject to her circumstances and the emotions these generate. She has no basis for moral judgment. She is not a moral agent.

All You Need is Hugs

But Inside Outdoes have a moral. What could that be? This: Embrace your sadness.

Early on, we see that each of those memories that go into storage is tinctured by the color of an emotion. Since Joy’s overriding imperative for Riley is happiness, there appears to be no use for Sadness in her life. From Joy’s perspective, whatever Sadness touches is ruined. But Joy has a eureka moment later on; at a critical moment in the story, she realizes that Riley can only be saved if she is allowed to be sad.

That may be a real insight for helicopter parents. Generally, life isn’t as brightly colored as a Pixar film, no matter what parents do. Learning to bear up under a little adversity is part of the maturation process. But Pixar is not promoting a stiff upper lip here. According to Inside Out, the reason you must embrace your sadness is that it will make you an object of pity. If you’re sad, you may find yourself at the center of a group hug.

Come to think of it, group hugs seem to come in at the end of just about every Pixar film. Finding Nemo, The Incredibles, Toy Story—it’s the hug that sends you out of the theater saying, “What a wonderful film; five stars!”

I don’t think it is too much of a stretch to say that there is something of the French philosopher Jean-Jacques Rousseau in a typical Pixar story arch: We possess a pure and inner goodness, yet it is fragile. And the worst thing that could possibly happen to someone is rejection. It deforms him; and that’s where evil comes from. We see it when Mr. Incredible rejects Buddy Pine when he volunteers to be Incredi-Boy, Mr. Incredible’s sidekick. Later, that turns Buddy into Syndrome, Mr. Incredible’s arch nemesis. Then there’s the Lots-O-Huggin Bear (irony here), the murderous toy that went bad when he was replaced by his owner Daisy in Toy Story 3. To sum up: We’re not judged because we go bad; we go bad because we’re judged. So it is imperative that the community never judge anyone; otherwise, there will be hell to pay. But for that to happen, the conscience must remain submerged—it may be relied upon, but only tacitly, because if its importance is admitted, we could run the risk of judging things we shouldn’t judge.

The Gospel Story of Pinocchio

I cannot help but compare Inside Out to another, much older film—Disney’s classic, Pinocchio.

Recall how the latter begins. An old woodcarver named Geppetto longs for love and companionship. So he crafts a wooden puppet and names it Pinocchio. Then he makes a wish; he wishes that his puppet would become a living boy. A fairy miraculously grants his wish while he sleeps. But once the puppet comes to life, one of the first things it asks is, “Am I a real boy now?” The fairy’s response sets contemporary teeth on edge. “No,” she says, “you will only be a real boy once you have proved yourself to be brave, truthful, and unselfish.”

In order for Pinocchio to prove himself, he will need guidance; he’ll need a conscience. This is where Jiminy Cricket famously steps in. The Cricket has been eavesdropping all along, but once Pinocchio asks, “What’s a conscience?” he can no longer contain himself, and he launches into a little sermon on the subject. Delighted with his performance, the fairy awards him the job of being Pinocchio’s conscience.

Pinocchio famously ignores all of the cricket’s advice. But he pays for his sins: a show of vanity brings imprisonment; when he lies, his nose grows; sensual indulgence partially transforms him into a jackass. But in the end, when it matters most, Pinocchio proves himself brave, truthful, and unselfish when he saves Geppetto from Monstro the whale. It’s Pinocchio’s love for Geppetto that awakens the virtues that have lain dormant all along. Conscience is no longer a small voice chiding him from the outside—it is now internal and strong. But in the course of proving himself brave, truthful, and unselfish, Pinocchio drowns in the act of saving others.

Nevertheless, there is a great reward. The fairy returns and raises Pinocchio from the dead. And she gives him a new body. He is a real flesh-and-blood boy at last. And then he is given to the mournful Geppetto. There is more than a hug when that happens—there is a true celebration; the music begins and they dance!

Pinocchio is a gospel story: It begins with the vivification of a lifeless puppet, and ends with his revivification and transformation. True gospel always includes moral transformation. And it is present in Pinocchio. We have the ordo salutis: new birth, sanctification, and finally, resurrection.

Inside Out could generously be called a prodigal son tale. Riley leaves; she comes to herself; she comes home again. There is a sort of resurrection, but not a moral one. Presumably she is changed, for her emotional palate now includes blue. But there’s nothing morally praiseworthy here. Instead, we are given an object of pity.

The End of the Matter

Years back, in the benighted 1970s, we had a scare. There was a rumor that many of the most popular rock bands were back-masking Satanic messages on vinyl albums. People spent hours listening to Judas Priest backward to see if something could be made out in the garble. A wise preacher told me amid the panic, “You don’t need to play Black Sabbath backward if you want to hear a Satanic message; all you need to do is play Barry Manilow forward.”

His selection of Manilow amused me at the time, for even then I knew what he was getting at. Nothing can be pinned down as overtly evil in a Manilow song. His back-masking was discernable in the forward playing. His lyrics assumed the wisdom of popular culture. No reflection was required; instead, you could just wallow in the bathos of “Copacobana.”

I’m no killjoy. I intend to hand over my money to Pixar with each new release. But if I’m right, and Pixar’s doctrine of man is there for us to see in Inside Out, I know what I’m buying: something sweet, like a cupcake, but nothing morally fortifying.

Books on the topic of this essay may be found in The Imaginative Conservative Bookstore. Republished with gracious permission from Touchstone: A Journal of Mere Christianity (May/June 2016).


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5 replies to this post
  1. Well done C.R. Wiley! As devastatingly effective as our public schools are, I think Disney and Pixar are even better teachers. Far too little respect is given to the positive deformations these movies inculcate in our youth, and perhaps even our adults.

  2. This is very insightful. “Inside Out” is for a culture of “men without chests”, isn’t it? A conscience is not included because it was “debunked” ages ago and all we are left with are our emotions / instincts to guide us.

    Yet, a conscience is still present, isn’t it? It’s a new one, though. One that tells us that to judge is wrong – that’s what creates evil. We can’t escape morality. Our culture is just trying to erect a new one since traditional values are obviously wrong because they are based on the idea of transcendent, objective moral duties (and for Christians these are grounded in a Person).

    “There has never been, and never will be, a radically new judgment of value in the history of the world. What purport to be new systems or…ideologies…all consist of fragments from the Tao itself, arbitrarily wrenched from their context in the whole and then swollen to madness in their isolation, yet still owing to the Tao and to it alone such validity as they possess.” CS Lewis, “The Abolition of Man”

  3. Perhaps the conscience is not present as a character, but is the charecters. The film doesn’t have any form of rational thinking or logic either. And I don’t think anyone would say that the film is saying people have no logic. It seems that the emotions each have morality and logic. So maybe neither logic nor a conscience are absent in the movie. Maybe a piece of the conscience is in each of the emotions. The characters aren’t just their “emotion”. I mean, Joy cried. These emotions are more than emotions, maybe.

    As far as the different genders of the emotions goes, Pete Docter (the director) says it was for comedy purposes. It might should also be noted that Pete Docter is a Christian. I don’t know if he believes in such things as a conscience though.

  4. This essay put me in mind of the main theme of Irving Babbitt’s writings. He wrote in his book Rousseau and Romanticism, “Emotional romanticists and scientific utilitarians have thus, in spite of their surface clashes, cooperated during the past century in the dehumanizing of man. It is not enough to say of the representatives of both sides of this great naturalistic movement that they eliminate the veto power from human nature while continuing to use the old words, like virtue and conscience, that imply a veto power. We have seen that they actually attack the veto power as synonymous with evil. The devil is conceived as the spirit that always says no.”

  5. Great essay, perfect comparison choice. There might be more to the IO message of embrace sadness than it will gain you pity–I’d have to watch it again. IO’s picture of the soul is very inventive, brilliantly executed, but at bottom it does reduce the person to, as Richard Rorty once put it, a “centerless web of beliefs and desires.” Whatever center (“control room”) it does posit is essentially accidental. Similarly, contrary to an earlier commenter, the film does have room for “men with chests,” but their occurrence is essentially a random thing–manliness and integrity are things that grow out of childhood “theme parks,” parks which apparently are so fragile at that age that a few unfortunate events can destroy them.

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